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EU: Union Struggles To Contain Turkey Accession Debate

  • Ahto Lobjakas --> The European Commission's carefully choreographed strategy to keep internal debate over Turkish accession silent until 6 October, when an initial decision must be made, is coming unraveled. Earlier this week, Dutch commission member Frits Bolkestein, who is responsible for internal markets and taxation and customs-union issues, made his reservations about Turkish membership clear. Today, the "Financial Times" referred to a skeptical letter sent by the Austrian agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler, to the commissioner in charge of enlargement, Guenter Verheugen.

Brussels, 10 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The letter by Franz Fischler is dated 30 July.

It is not the letter's existence, but the timing of the leak, that makes the whole affair highly embarrassing for the European Union. The revelation comes in the same week as candid remarks questioning Turkey's credentials made in a speech on 7 September by Commissioner Frits Bolkestein. It also comes one day after Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen of Germany wrapped up a four-day tour of Turkey that appeared to be geared toward soothing Ankara's anxieties.

Fischler's letter presents a wide range of questions he believes the EU has yet to address before it can decide Turkish membership.

Commission officials struggled today to contain the controversy.

Spokeswoman Amelia Torres parried reporters' questions, saying the time to discuss the issue will not come before 6 October, when the European Commission is scheduled to reveal its recommendation about whether Turkey is ready to start accession talks.

"The time to discuss the question of Turkey's accession to the EU and whether it meets the political criteria or not can only take place on the basis of a report which is being prepared by the commission and which is not ready yet," Torres said. "And since that report is not yet ready, since it has not been submitted to the members of the college, I believe that the time has not come for us to answer questions."

In his letter, Fischler notes there has been "no opportunity for a proper debate" and asks for his views to be taken into account when the report is drafted.

One official said Verheugen found the letter "interesting," while adding that there is "no war" between the two. Verheugen, however, is known to resent public intrusions into what is essentially his field of responsibility.

Spokeswoman Torres today appeared to indicate that this is also the view of the majority of the commission:

"We are in a democracy, and the commission itself is a collegiate body," Torres said. "And, of course, I do find that the commissioners have, obviously, to have an opinion on such an important subject [as Turkey's accession]. Whether they make it public or whether they should make it public is another issue."

Fischler warns in his letter that the costs of accommodating Turkey's sprawling farm sector in the EU's current agricultural policies would dwarf the costs of the last enlargement. He puts the annual overall cost of Turkish membership in agricultural terms at more than 11 billion euros ($13.4 billion). He notes it is likely that current member states may not want to assume that extra burden.

Praising the benefits of cultural diversity, Fischler says Turkey is a "sui generis society, far more oriental than European." He says that while the Turkish elites look to Europe, the vast majority of Turks are "unaware" of and "uninvolved" in the government's European project.

Fischler claims Turkey's secularism is only skin deep. He says Islam continues to enjoy public preference, adding that the role of religion will not be settled in Turkey "for a long time." There is also "no guarantee" against a fundamentalist backlash.

Fischler goes on to say that the remoteness of Turkey, as well as its deep social divisions, would weaken the EU's "common identity." He also mentions widespread problems with gender equality and religious tensions as adding to a "complex mosaic" unknown in any European society.

Fischler casts doubt on whether Turkey's recent human rights reforms are sufficient, or whether they are even being implemented. He points to "smoldering tensions" with Turkish Kurds.

Fischler notes that many of the strongest supporters of Turkey's accession -- "first among them the U.S. and the U.K." -- proceed primarily from security and political considerations. But he says many such advocates do not ask if Turkey's membership could undermine the EU's political integration, adding that it "may even be on their wish list."

Fischler then repeats the point made earlier this week by another commissioner, Bolkestein. If Turkey did join, countries such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and even Russia could lay their own claims to membership. He observes that their credentials "are generally more European than Turkey's in terms of culture, geography, and history."

Fischler points to the complications that would inevitably follow once Iran, Iraq, and Syria were to acquire a common border with the EU. All three also form part of what Fischler calls the "Kurdish problem," which he says a Turkish EU entry would "import."

Fischler says there has been little or no debate among commissioners. He quotes a string of articles that have appeared in the "Financial Times" in the course of this year, all stating that Turkey's accession is inevitable. He notes: "It is as if the 'FT' knew more than the college or I know."

The commissioner points to low levels of public support for Turkish membership in the EU and notes widespread skepticism among political elites.

He concludes by warning against a hasty decision by the EU -- saying that admitting Turkey without solid arguments would be embarking on a "march of folly." What Europe needs now, he says, is a "Plan B" addressing ways of helping Turkey other than membership.