The new European Commission has recommended that Turkey is now ready to begin full negotiations on joining the EU.
The issue of Turkey's membership has moved on apace
At a summit in December, the EU leaders will use the report as the basis for deciding whether or not to open negotiations on the Turkish bid.
Why does Turkey want to join?
Turkey is a poor country, with living standards at about a quarter of EU levels. As a member of the EU, Turkey would benefit from the economic advantages that belonging to the trading bloc would bring. It would also receive central funding from the EU budget.
Reforms inspired by the International Monetary Fund and EU membership criteria have already brought greater stability to the Turkish economy, which is recovering from a severe crisis. Economic growth is forecast to be 7.9% for 2004 and inflation has been dramatically reduced.
According to opinion polls, nearly 70% of Turks support joining the EU.
How long has it been trying?
Turkey first began to woo Europe in 1963, when it signed an association agreement that promised eventual membership of the bloc.
Things moved very slowly until 1999, when Turkey was officially recognised as an EU candidate. In 2002, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a man with strong European ambitions, was elected prime minister and quickened the pace of political reform. He has said he believes Turkey could join the EU by 2012. But the negotiations are widely expected to go on for about 15 years.
What are the conditions for entry?
To join the EU, a country has to demonstrate that it fulfils three main criteria:
- Political: It must be a democracy with stable institutions that guarantee the rule of law, and must respect and protect human rights and minorities
- Economic: It must be a functioning market economy and be able to cope with joining the single market
- Legal: It must be able to comply with the obligations of EU membership, including the adoption of the body of EU law
What is Turkey doing to support its bid?
Earlier this year, Turkish state television lifted its ban on broadcasting in Kurdish, a minority language. The government also released four prominent Kurdish activists. Human rights activists applauded.
Over the past 18 months, the government has passed nine reform packages, including a ban on the death penalty, a zero-tolerance policy towards torture in prisons, and a curtailing of military influence.
However, Ankara's penal reform bill - designed to bring it into line with human rights laws across Europe - tripped up over European opposition to a clause that would ban adultery. The clause, seen as a concession to Islamist hardliners, will not appear in the new penal code.
Who is in favour of Turkey's bid, and why?
Backers say Turkey would bring rapid economic growth, a young workforce, and a huge army to the EU's table. They see a westernised Turkey as a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism.
The US and the UK are key supporters. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said in May that "Turkey's accession will be a good thing for us all". French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder have backed Turkey, though there is strong opposition within both countries.
The move to ban adultery sparked protests and EU anxiety
The European enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, says Turkey's strategic position straddling Europe and the Middle East is an asset rather than a drawback.
Who is opposed, and why?
There is significant public opposition in Austria, Germany, France and Spain.
Some opponents object to Europe incorporating a Muslim nation, and one that is geographically mostly in Asia, noting that it would increase the EU's proportion of Muslims from 3% to 20% overnight.
They say it would extend the EU's borders to Iraq, Iran and Syria, threatening stability. Its size and poverty could also drain EU resources, they argue, and there could be a wave of Turkish migrants across Europe.
What are Turkey's chances?
The row over the adultery clause in the penal reform bill erupted just when everything seemed to be on course for Turkey to be given the green light. Legal reforms are crucial to Turkey's bid, and the European Commission now seems satisfied that they are on track.
But Turkey has been criticised for its record on religious freedom and violence against women.
Allegations that it systematically tortures prisoners and detainees have not gone away. Turkey's independent Human Rights Association (IHD) says the security forces have switched to torture methods which leave no trace, such as sleep or food deprivation.