Three complex and closely related issues are moving rapidly toward dramatic showdowns at the Dec. 12 European Union summit in Copenhagen. The American stake in them is immense; their outcome could affect the forthcoming conflict with Iraq and long-term relations between Turkey's 70 million Muslims and the rest of the Western world. Yet after years of discussion and negotiation, it is unclear whether the EU will grasp the need to act.

At stake are three things: Cyprus's application for EU membership, Turkey's desire to start talks on its own EU membership, and the long-stalled talks on the future of the divided island of Cyprus itself.

The first issue seems all but formally settled: At Copenhagen, Cyprus will be invited to join the EU, along with nine other countries, effective in 2004. This is the correct outcome to a battle in which the Greek Cypriot government was supported initially only by the United States and Greece.

But when the Clinton administration embarked on its efforts to bring Cyprus into the EU in early 1995, it was only one part of a three-pronged American strategy. Regrettably, the other two are still stalled or uncertain: (1) giving Turkey a specific starting date to begin its own EU membership process and (2) getting Turkey to pressure the Turkish Cypriots toward a settlement of the long-running Cyprus problem, which has created continual tension between two critical NATO allies, Greece and Turkey.

Everyone, including the Turks, acknowledges that EU membership for Turkey is many years away, given its weak economy and the need for progress on human rights. But for years the EU has refused to start formal talks on membership, thus sacrificing the leverage it holds over Turkey in the very areas it complains about. The EU cites not only human rights concerns but the fear of being swamped by cheap Turkish labor. (In case you haven't guessed the real underlying reason for European opposition yet, see below.)

Meanwhile, the United Nations has put forward a detailed proposal for Cyprus: a single international state with two self-governing zones. While the details are not acceptable to either side, it does form a useful starting point for negotiations, as the Greeks have indicated privately. But to the powerful Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, everything is personal. An old and embittered man who has fought for more than a half-century for his vision of Cyprus, Denktash has refused for years to engage in serious talks unless he first obtains international recognition for his part of the island as "The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" -- something he knows is not achievable. By his rigidity, Denktash has done great damage not only to the 200,000 Turks in Cyprus but to the 70 million people of Turkey.

The most consequential part of this historic European moment is Turkey's application to join the European Union. The newly elected government in Turkey is controlled by an Islamic party, and this has set off alarm bells among both moderate Turks and in Europe. But since the election, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamic leader who stunned Europe with his victory, has skillfully lowered fears about his party's intentions, especially with a tour of European capitals to plead his country's EU case. He has even suggested a more forthcoming policy toward Cyprus.

Enter, seemingly out of nowhere, former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing. Three weeks ago Giscard used his new platform as chairman of a major EU commission drafting a European constitution to declare, in a blistering interview in Le Monde, that Turkey was "not a European nation" and its entry into the EU would be "the end of the European Union." It was well understood that what Giscard meant was that the EU was a Christian club whose values and culture would be threatened by the admission of Muslim Turkey.

Merci, M. Giscard. By saying in public what many European have long said in private, Giscard inadvertently did the Turks an enormous favor. Since his comments, almost every other public figure in Europe has been scrambling to disagree with Giscard, and to deny that anyone in Europe could possibly harbor racist feelings toward Turks or other Muslims. Yet the furious Turkish reaction to Giscard's comment only served to underscore Europe's dilemma: Keep Turkey out and risk the eventual creation of a radical or fundamentalist regime at the very gates of the European Union.

It was for this reason that President Clinton in the mid-1990s embarked on a major effort to persuade the EU to open the door to Turkey. Clinton argued eloquently that starting the EU process would give Turkey an incentive to continue to develop in the direction of the Western-oriented secular state that its founding genius, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, had envisioned, and turn its back on the more radical and fundamentalist regimes to its east and south. But Europe resisted, rejecting several opportunities to open the door.

After a slow start, President Bush and his colleagues have followed the same policy, using the recent NATO summit in Prague to urge the Europeans to give Turkey a starting date for talks. To succeed, they must also press Ankara to push Denktash into starting discussions on the U.N. proposal immediately, before the EU summit in Copenhagen.

This brings us back to our starting point. If all goes perfectly, Cyprus will be invited into the EU at Copenhagen, Turkey will be given a starting date for its negotiations, and the two parts of Cyprus will start serious talks on the basis of the U.N. plan. That would be a real trifecta -- a tall order for just three weeks. It is unlikely to happen unless Europe's leading nations make a bold leap past the kind of not-so-secret fears so openly uttered by Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

The writer, a former American ambassador to the United Nations, was President Clinton's special envoy for Cyprus 1997-1999.