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Germany: Rebuilding the Turkey-EU Connection

  • Roland Eggleston

Bonn, 30 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Germany is gingerly trying to rebuild relations between Turkey and Europe, after Turkey's angry reaction to the European Union's (EU) rebuff to Ankara's membership application.

But, officials in Bonn acknowledge the way ahead will be difficult, because the EU has little to offer Turkey at this time, and Turkey's bitterness is, therefore, likely to remain undiminished.

German officials say tentative contacts have already begun in other international organizations, and that efforts are underway to arrange a visit to Ankara by Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel, who has said frequently, since the breach, that Turkey is part of Europe, even if it is not yet a realistic candidate for the EU.

Kinkel yesterday said Germany favors Turkey's integration in the community of European states. And, he categorically rejected German press reports that the German government was pressuring its EU partners not to admit Turkey to the EU.

It is not clear how Turkey would respond to Bonn's initiatives.

Germany is taking the lead because it has little option. Turkey's Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz has assigned some of the blame for the EU rebuff to Turkey's traditional opponent, Greece. But, most of Yilmaz' anger was directed at Germany and its Chancellor, Helmut Kohl.

Yilmaz said Kohl wanted the EU to be a "club of Christians," where Muslims from any country were unwanted. He asserted Germany was erecting a "cultural Berlin Wall" between Christian Europe and Muslim Turkey. Others recalled a remark by Kohl several months ago that, when he studied geography at school, Turkey was not considered part of Europe.

Yilmaz signaled that Turkey would no longer place so much emphasis on western Europe, and would make new efforts to strengthen its ties with Russia, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Balkans. Foreign Minister Ismail Cem said the dispute with the EU had led Turkey to realize it should put more energy into its program of building close relations with the Caucasus and Central Asia, which, he said, has been lagging in recent years. However, despite the publicity attached to this "new direction," most commentators say it can scarcely be called a breach in relations. Turkey will maintain its membership in NATO, to which most of the EU countries belong, and has made clear it wants to continue its warm relationship with the U.S., which considers Turkey a dependable ally, in a highly volatile area.

The cause of Turkey's anger is this month's EU's Luxembourg summit, which approved a timetable for expansion. The EU agreed talks would begin in April with five Central European countries and Cyprus, and promised they would be followed, in a few years, with negotiations with another five former Communist countries.

Turkey was placed by itself in a third category. The EU leaders reaffirmed that Turkey did have a right to join the organization, but there were not even half-promises on when negotiations might begin, and it was clear to all they would be a long way off.

The official reasons for putting Turkey in a separate category are well-established. They include human rights abuses, the violent suppression of the separatist, Kurdish minority; the touchy relations with Greece and the occupation of northern Cyprus since 1974, when the Turkish army moved in to protect the Turkish minority.

The comment by the respected international newsmagazine "The Economist" was that the EU had created a "one-country ghetto" for Turkey. The magazine said it was true that Turkey was not yet ready for full membership, but accused the EU of handling the issue clumsily. It noted that Turkey had been waiting to join the EU since 1963, and it was hardly surprising that Ankara was indignant at former Communist countries being given precedence.

"The Economist" was blunt in assigning the blame for what it called the EU summit's "big bungle." It said, "Germany and Greece led the drive to exclude the 61-million mostly-Muslim Turks from even the slow lane to membership."

In Bonn this week, Government officials vehemently denied that Germany should accept more responsibility than the other members of the EU. They pointed out, correctly, that none of the other members of the EU had insisted that Turkey be included in the second group of applicants (Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia).

An official at the Turkish embassy in Bonn told RFE/RL that "agreement to go along with the current is one thing. An active hostile campaign is another," he said.

Turkey feels that its suspicions have been confirmed by press reports, that four days before the Luxembourg summit, Germany's Foreign Ministry circulated a negotiating position which said unequivocally: "European Union membership for Turkey is not possible in the short-or-middle term."

Foreign Minister Kinkel has shown surprise that the Turks should have reacted so strongly to be pushed to the back of the membership queue.

In an interview with German journalists, he acknowledged that the EU governments had expected Turkey to go along easily with their decision and were totally unprepared for the anger.

"We had not expected this emotional reaction," said Kinkel. "We did not want it in any way. We don't want it to bring a deterioration in our relationship."

Kinkel insisted that the crisis had erupted because Turkish expectations of what could be achieved at the Luxembourg were "unrealistic." Asked why this was so, he blamed other countries for encouraging Turkey to have false hopes.

Kinkel, who has a reputation for peppery comments, said these countries had "conducted a beauty contest to win Turkey's favor." He declined to name them, but some commentators have suggested France and Italy, which are seeking business contracts in the region, might have been among those which encouraged Turkey to expect more than was realistic.

The negotiating paper circulated by Germany's Foreign Ministry before the summit apparently said specifically that Turkey should not be encouraged to believe that the EU was making concrete preparations for negotiations.

The consequences of the dispute are difficult to assess. One victim may be the island of Cyprus. Some EU countries had hoped that beginning negotiations with the Greek side of Cyprus might lead to a deal with Turkish-Cyprus, which would end the partition of the island. Most commentators believe this is now unlikely, although Greece will certainly insist that negotiations continue on EU membership for the Greek side of the island.

Since the dispute, Turkey has emphasized its ties with Russia and the Caucasus, although most of the events were organized before the breach. Russia's Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin recently visited Ankara to sign a $13.5 billion gas deal, and let it be known he was trying to organize a visit by President Boris Yeltsin.

Last weekend, Turkey's Prime Minister Yilmaz visited Turkmenistan, and signed a memorandum of understanding on a proposed gas pipeline from Turkmenistan across Azerbaijan and Georgia to Turkey. The first 200 kilometers of another Turkmenistan-to-Turkey pipeline -- this one through Iran -- was opened this week.

But some commentators are doubtful about Turkey's ability to develop close ties with other Muslim governments in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

At the recent Islamic summit meeting in Iran, Turkey was criticized for its raids into Iraq against Kurdish guerrillas, and heard vehement opposition to its developing ties with Israel. The criticism was so heated that Turkey's Prime Minister left before the end of the conference.

Despite the comments, Turkey is going ahead with the ties to Israel. Ankara and Jerusalem are working on scores of development projects, and preparing a long-term military alliance. Next month, Turkish, Israeli and American warships conduct a joint naval exercise in the Mediterranean. Commentators say the efforts by Germany's Foreign Minister Kinkel to ease the tensions will be useful. But, several believe that, in the end, it may be the U.S., which will have to find a way to soothe Turkey's wounded pride and suggest to the EU that a little more tact could go a long way to avoid problems.

The U.S. is strongly aware of Turkey's importance as a dependable NATO ally close to the Caucasus, the Balkans and the turbulence of the Middle East. But even for the U.S., it will probably take some time.