No way to treat a friend

For the third year in a row, Turkey's annual hurdles on the winding path of convergence with the EU - a progress report early next month and the European Council in December - are likely to be bruising. Doubters will seize on gridlock over Cyprus and a pause in legislative reform to allege that Turkey is not changing and should be pushed back outside the EU's gates. They will point to Ankara's response to US efforts to declare the 1915-23 killing of Armenians a genocide, and the political push for an incursion into northern Iraq to deal with cross-border terrorist attacks, as evidence that Turkey is not ready to join the club. So it is worth stepping back and considering why Europe needs Turkey.

Turkey was critical to Europe in the cold war. For 40 years, it stood lonely guard on the south-eastern third of Nato's frontline, paying the price in military-heavy government and delayed development. There was little carping about its Muslim identity then, and a cultural variety that included Turkey was considered a European strength. After communism's collapse, Turkey kept contributing to Europe's security, giving troops and legitimacy to EU-backed missions in Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Balkans, and even Congo. If EU-Turkish relations had not stumbled (for which all sides are responsible), it would likely be supporting a force for Darfur.

The process of convergence has been strongly in Europe's interest as well, especially the golden period between 1999 and 2005: wide-ranging reforms fashioned a more European political system; peace and cooperation replaced friction with Greece; annual economic growth of 7.5% benefited European companies; Turkey's new trust in the EU brought a turnaround on Cyprus that nearly solved the problem; and basic freedoms of religion and expression improved. The EU won credibility as a fair-minded player in the Muslim world.

But the sum of these many parts is not seen by European publics and politicians, consumed by doubts about enlargement, immigration and their own economic security. Election campaigns - notably those of Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel - featured a demeaning of the Turkish "other" and proposals that Europe drop its promise of membership. Conservative EU politicians admit privately that Turkey is more benefit than threat, but that to say so out loud would be political suicide.

Fears about instant membership are misplaced. Nobody suggests Turkey will be ready for a decade or more. Incomes are less than half the EU average, and EU norms are far from implemented. Accession will be imminent only when the stiffest conditions applied to any candidate are fulfilled (and every EU state will still have a veto). Indeed, depending on how the EU develops, Turkey may have second thoughts.

Most important for both the EU and Turkey is to relaunch the process of convergence that has brought so much benefit to both sides. Turkish voters have shown their faith in this process, returning the pro-reform AK party to power. It has gone straight back to work, tackling in an open spirit one of the key problems in Turkey's democratisation: the 1982 military-era constitution.

As EU leaders prepare for the annual debate over how much reform Turkey has done and how much it should do, they should do all they can to renew Turkey's trust in the EU. The cost of restoring the motivational goal of membership is not high, and the reward great. Turkey is not fundamentally different to Greece, Spain and Portugal, where EU leaps of faith were essential to a transition from military authoritarianism to stability and democracy.

Chriss Patten, the former European commissioner for external relations and chairman of the board of the International Crisis Group.