Turkey’s long-awaited moment has finally arrived. Nevertheless, this week’s start to European Union accession negotiations is anything but the last lap in a long and arduous process that has already spanned more than four decades.

Quite the contrary: given the prevailing climate in Europe towards Turkish membership, it looks like Turkey is in for an even more bruising, uphill battle with the EU for its ultimate aim for a European vocation. For supporters of Europe — a continent that includes Turkey — this battle looks to be counterproductive, and could prove to be destructive, both for Turkey and the EU.

Since the 2002 elections, in which Prime Minister Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept to power with a mandate of less than one-third of the popular vote (but with over two-thirds of the Turkish Grand National Assembly’s vote) thanks to the Turkish election system, the AKP has made EU membership its ultimate foreign policy goal.

The AKP government has tied almost all of its domestic reform programs to its EU membership process, grounding its domestic agenda to an overwhelmingly popular platform in Turkey. As a community of common European values, the EU represents the standards by which Turkey has begun to judge itself. Therefore, at this point, for the EU to draw out Turkey’s negotiations and offer it anything less than full membership would be a direct blow to the AKP and a highly destabilizing move for Turkey.

While most commentary prior to Oct. 3 — when the EU and Turkey reached an agreement on membership talks — has focused on Turkey’s need for the EU, the flipside to this argument is at least equally important to consider. With the EU constitution effectively killed by this summer’s results and the enlargement process seriously in jeopardy from top political leaders in Germany, France and Austria, just to name the most prominent examples, the EU appears to be heading toward a “Fortress Europe” mentality.

This particular brand of introspection and belly gazing by our European friends could not have come at a worse time in relation to world events. Rather than assuming its self-proclaimed global role as a leading force for human rights and democracy, the EU is sending all the wrong signals both to Turkey and its neighbors.

As Turkey has come closer to fulfilling the Copenhagen Criteria established by the EU, some Europeans have increasingly appealed to very narrow national interests and xenophobic fears to push Turkey away, often verging on echoing Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis. While EU support for Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and Georgia’s Rose Revolution are nice, the true test should be how the EU deals with Turkey’s much less revolutionary, but equally important, democratic transformation of the past 20 years. Turkey is far too important — both as an ally and an exemplary model for peaceful reform — for the EU to simply offer a “privileged partnership.”

As negotiation talks with Turkey get underway, the EU has a historic opportunity to wipe the slate clean and set a powerful example to the world. By offering Turkey a level playing field on which to progress towards full EU membership, the EU will be fulfilling its vision of a united and free Europe that can truly claim to be a global force for democracy and positive transformation.

However, if the EU or any of its member states establishes hills and valleys through which Turkey must proceed, unlike any of the EU’s previous negotiation treaties, the EU will have failed in its mission. Today we owe it to ourselves and to our European friends to be rooting for a united Europe that includes a fair and unprejudiced playing field for Turkey.

Joshua Walker is a second-year graduate student in international relations. Previously he was a Fulbright Scholar in Turkey.