For more than four decades, European leaders have held out to Turkey the prospect of membership in their club. The odds that Turkey would join Europe shortened considerably last week, when officials from the European Union and Ankara agreed to commence discussions on Turkish membership next October. Membership is not a done deal, however. Turkey must continue its reforms and close the social and ideological gaps that separate it from Europe.

Most important, it must win over European public opinion and allay concerns about the impact of Turkish membership on the EU. Success will pay dividends far beyond those felt in the states most immediately affected: Turkey’s accession to the EU will help silence those who claim there is a “clash of civilizations” between the Western and Muslim worlds.

Turkey straddles two worlds. It is situated on the southeastern reaches of Europe, it borders the Middle East, and it possesses a predominately Muslim population. It has been an associate member of the EU for 40 years and a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization still longer. Yet previous efforts to join the EU ended in failure. The primary objection was that the country’s authoritarian politics could not be accommodated by Europe’s liberal democratic framework, although the objections of Greece — Turkey’s longtime rival — contributed to the problem. Nonetheless, the door was never closed — if nothing else, to encourage continuing evolution in the right direction.

That paternalism paid off. A series of Turkish strong men — the authoritarians that raised concern in Europe — forced through reforms that closed the gaps, both political and economic, between their country and Europe. Their persistence produced last week’s agreement to open membership discussions.

An eventual agreement on the terms of membership is only a first step, however. Eventually, Turkey must harmonize its laws with EU regulations and standards that cover virtually every field of social and economic behavior. Experts worry that process could take decades. In addition, establishing a legal framework for action is not going to be sufficient. Unlike previous EU candidate members, Turkey will have to actually carry out the legal reforms that prove its commitment to European values and norms.

Domestic reform is only half the battle. The Turkish government must also win over European publics that worry about the impact of membership on their own societies. With a population of 70 million, Turkey brings as many new citizens to the EU as all 10 of the countries that joined the EU earlier this year. Continuing population growth could mean that it is the single largest member state if it eventually joins the union.

Most Europeans fears are simpler and cruder. They worry that allowing Turkey to enter the EU would result in floods of immigrants. Immediately after last week’s meeting, Austria joined France in announcing that its citizens would have a chance to vote on Turkey’s membership. Since unanimity is required for all new EU members, this move could torpedo Turkey’s efforts.

While there is concern about Turkish membership, opening the door benefits Turkey and Europe. The prospect of membership will encourage continuing reform in Turkey, both economic and legal. Evolution toward greater democracy and human rights will help all Turks. Joining the union will prod economic development and create prosperity.

Turkey’s membership will anchor Turkey in Western political and economic institutions, providing greater stability in a region beset by tensions. It will also help bridge the gap between the Muslim and Western worlds, helping convince Muslims that the clash of civilizations is not inevitable.

There may be a more immediate political payoff. To win European agreement to begin negotiations, Turkey’s prime minister, Mr. Recip Tayyip Erdogan, promised to sign a revised customs-union agreement with the EU, which would include its 10 newest members, Cyprus among them. The EU has been pushing Turkey to recognize Cyprus, but it has refused. Ankara is the only government to recognize the ethnic Turkish government that rules the northern half of the divided island. While the new customs agreement does not constitute legal recognition of Cyprus, it constitutes first steps toward a new relationship between the two governments.

Finding a solution to the Cyprus problem would be an incalculable gain for Europe and the world. But it is incidental. Turkish membership in the EU offers more immediate benefits. There is much to be done on both sides before the two can fit together. Last week’s historic decision sets that process in motion.

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