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EU: Relations With Turkey At Lowest Point Ever

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 15 December 1997 (RFE/RL) - Turkey and the European Union have clearly reached the lowest point ever in their 34 years of often strained relations. Over the weekend, the 15-nation EU offered Ankara -- since the 1960s a perennial aspirant for membership -- an olive branch, but no hope for attaining even candidate status for membership.

Within hours, the Turkish Government angrily rejected the peace offering and said it would freeze all its political contacts with the Union.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz, who is due to meet President Bill Clinton in Washington on Friday, told American journalists that Turkey would now seek what he called "a strategic partnership" with the U.S.

At its Luxembourg summit Saturday, the EU itself had formally outlined what it called "a European strategy for Turkey." The first step in that strategy was an invitation to attend the planned March launching of a new standing European Conference of 15 EU members and 11 candidates for membership -- Cyprus and 10 Central and East European states. Other measures envisaged in the summit's final declaration were designed to increase Brussels' financial aid to Turkey and intensify economic cooperation.

The summit's chief decision was to invite Cyprus and five of the Eastern candidates to begin membership talks in April, and at least formally associate the other five Eastern candidates in what was called the overall "accession process." But the EU all but said that Turkey had no prospects for membership in the foreseeable future. It cited Ankara's continuing human-rights violations, mistreatment of its Kurdish minority and its continuing refusal to take its disputes with Greece -- particularly those concerning the divided island of Cyprus -- to the EU's International Court of Justice. A few days before the summit, Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, the EU's current president, had spoken openly of Turkish membership being probably decades off.

Juncker's frank but far from diplomatic dismissal of Ankara as not worthy of "sitting at the table of the European Union" immediately triggered a Turkish refusal to attend a planned Saturday night dinner for all 26 participants at the summit -- plus itself. The EU promptly canceled the dinner. Several analysts say that the Union may now have to do the same for the launching of its vaunted standing conference, which Turkey declined to attend immedaitely after the summit had issued its final statement. Britain's "Financial Times" said in an editorial today: "Without Turkey, the conference makes little sense; its main purpose is to bring Turkey in from the cold, even if not into the EU."

Turkey made its first application for membership in what was then the European Community in 1963. It was refused, with the official grounds cited as both economic and democratic deficiencies. A second membership application in the 1970s was turned down for similar reasons. In 1989, Ankara submitted a third application, but the EU has simply frozen all action on that one.

Instead, two years ago, the Union concluded a customs union with Turkey that provided for hundreds of millions of dollars in EU aid to Ankara over the next five years. But both Greece, Turkey's historic adversary, and the European Parliament have acted within the past year to freeze all EU pay-outs to Turkey. The result has been that Ankara has yet to receive any of the promised aid.

No wonder, then, that a Saturday editorial in Turkey's leading newspaper "Hurriyet" summed up the angry national mood by proclaiming: "Go to Hell, Europe!" Many educated Turks believe that the EU's rejection is simply a matter of European racist disdain for a country with close to 62 million Moslems. They consider this as far more important the Union's stated reservations over Turkey's poor human-rights record, repression of its Kurdish minority and continuing disputes with Greece over Cyprus and other outstanding bilateral issues.

Analysts say that, to a degree, the Turks are right in their accusations of racism. They cite public remarks earlier this year by West European Christian Democrat leaders, including German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, which simply dismissed the possibility of the EU ever admitting Moslem Turkey. A few weeks later, Prime Minister Wim Kok of the Netherlands, then EU president, publicly decried such attitudes, which he said were prevalent in the EU and had to be faced realistically.

But analysts also say that unless Turkey does reduce its democratic inadequacies, there is little chance of it even being considered for membership. They note that both the European Parliament and many individual EU member states simply won't consider making Turkey eligible for entry until the country affects a real transformation in its behavior. And few believe there is much chance of that soon.