Prague, 5 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's Executive Commission has made a new effort to improve the 15-nation group's troubled relations with Turkey. But the Turkish government, while welcoming the Commission's initiative, has called for concrete actions from EU member states before its agrees to renewing any political dialogue with Brussels.
The upshot is that the EU and Turkey remain very much at odds. They have been so since a Union summit three months ago decided to begin membership negotiations with 11 candidate states -- including 10 from Central and Eastern Europe -- while leaving perennial EU aspirant Turkey out in the cold. Ankara replied by suspending all political talks with the Union. Many analysts now fear a worsening of relations when the EU begins membership talks at the end of the month (Mar. 31) with Cyprus and five of the Eastern candidates (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia).
The Mediterranean island nation has been divided into a majority ethnic Greek community and a minority Turkish community for more than two decades. Turkey, the only country recognizing the Cypriot Turkish community as a national entity, says the opening of membership talks with the Greek Cypriot Government would force it to strengthen its ties with the Turkish northern segment of the island, where 35,000 mainland Turkish troops are stationed. That could lead to permanent Turkish annexation of Cyprus' northern sector, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the EU to take the full island in as a member.
In response to a request from the December summit, the EU Commission yesterday proposed what it called a new "European strategy for Turkey." The proposal would strengthen Ankara's ties with Brussels by broadening its existing -- but never actually implemented -- customs union with the EU and increasing cooperation in industry, services and agriculture. Announcing the initiative, external affairs Commissioner Hans van den Broek made an indirect appeal to EU member-state Greece to stop blocking the release of more than 400 million dollars of EU aid due to Turkey under the customs union set up three years ago.
Greece and Turkey, historic Mediterranean adversaries, have been quarreling for years over a number of bilateral questions, most notably Cyprus' future. Athens has blocked the disbursement of EU custom-union funds to Ankara virtually since the signing of the agreement. The EU Parliament 18 months ago also froze the funds until Turkey improved its human-rights record.
Van den Broek told reporters yesterday that Turkey was unlikely to attend the EU's so-called European Conference next week (Mar. 12) in London. The meeting was designed to make Turkey the equal -- at least for one day -- of the 15 EU members and 11 candidates. But Ankara has dismissed it as empty consolation prize for failing to be designated as a candidate at the EU summit.
Today, van den Broek is visiting Cyprus for talks on how Turkish Cypriots can be brought into EU entry negotiations. The EU wants both Greek and Turkish Cypriots to form a joint delegation for the talks, but has said if that is impossible talks will proceed with the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot-led Government.
Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash insists that negotiations be undertaken only after the existence of two island states is recognized. Late last year, after the EU issued its formal invitation to Cyprus, Denktash withdrew from United Nations-sponsored peace talks between the two communities. And yesterday van den Broek said Denktash had told the EU that, in his words, he was "not in a position to receive" the Commissioner.
In a separate report to the European Parliament yesterday, the EU Commission said that the Turkish Government's program for improving human rights and democracy in the country, in the report's words, "had not had sufficient impact (or any) discernible effect." The program was adopted by Ankara after the Parliament froze the pay-out of promised custom-union aid funds.
Ankara argues that, in excluding it as a candidate, the EU is applying dual human-rights standards for Turkey and the 10 Eastern candidates. Many educated Turks believe that the real reason for the EU excluding their country from membership is its fear of taking in a largely Moslem nation of 63 million people. That idea was reinforced last year when Christian Democrat leaders from EU states publicly stated their opposition to eventual Turkish membership.