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Turkey: Relations With The EU Deteriorating

  • Jolyon Naegele

Ankara, 2 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The relations between Turkey and the European Union have deteriorated recently, threatening prospects for economic and political cooperation in the years to come.

Several events have illustrated this trend. Last month, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel accused Europe, and above all Germany, of tolerating the separatist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Germany has denied the accusation.

Also last month, Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz appealed to ethnic Turks who are German citizens to cast their ballots in the forthcoming elections for the opposition Social Democrats. This prompted German complaints that Turkey had interfered in German domestic affairs.

These exchanges are merely the latest in continuing disputes between Turkey and the European powers that have long centered on Turkey's relationship to EU.

More than twenty years ago (in 1963) Turkey signed an association agreement with the European Common Market (current EU). It called for a full Turkish membership within 20 years. But it remained an empty letter. A customs union agreement signed 35 years ago only began to be implemented in 1993, but has not yet become fully operational. In Luxembourg last December, the EU turned down Turkey's candidacy for membership. Turkey immediately cut off all political dialogue with the EU.

Some of the problems relate to Turkey's military intervention in Cyprus in 1974. Turkey intervened in response to an attempt by the Greek military junta to annex the island. The action led to the collapse of military dictatorship in Greece and put Athens on the road to EU membership. But it also resulted in the political division of the island through the establishment of the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus." The EU countries have never recognized this division.

Other problems concern Turkey's difficult relations with Greece. Frustrated by the division of Cyprus and long-term tensions in the Aegean Sea over territorial waters and air space, Greece has firmly opposed any move by the EU to open membership talks with Turkey.

Furthermore, the domestic situation in Turkey itself adversely affected its relations with the EU. The Turkish military staged a coup in 1980. In the 15 years since restoring parliamentary democracy, the military has taken an active political role, most recently by trying to protect the secular state from the perceived "fundamentalist," that is Islamist, threat.

Finally, Turkey's 14-year battle against the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) at a cost of more than 28,000 lives and massive uprooting of the ethnic Kurdish population from southeastern Turkey has heightened EU concerns about Turkey's human rights record.

After the Luxembourg summit, the Turkish position hardened. Turkish officials declared that any progress in developing relations would henceforth depend on full implementation of the customs union agreement, currently blocked by Greece.

The EU made only limited progress at its Cardiff summit last June in improving relations with Turkey largely due to Greek resistance. Dutch Foreign Minster Hans van Mierlo said after the meeting that, "in matters of substance, Greece blocked all points."

The final communique said only that the EU is now committed to "a strategy to prepare Turkey for membership (and) the strategy can be enriched over time, taking into account Turkey's own ideas."

Turks themselves are divided on Europe. Some of them consider themselves culturally European. Others point out that Turkey is neither in Europe nor Asia but has one foot in each. The head of the history department at Erzurum University in eastern Anatolia, Enver Konukcu, sees Turkey as a bridge between the East and the West. "East is East and West is West but we are a bridge between East and West. The bridge also has problems of its own. We have always been in Europe, under the Ottomans and today. No one can put us beyond the boundaries of Europe -- We recognize that we have a problem involving our traditions and customs."

But another Erzurum professor, Ibrahim Yerebakan, says the West still does not understand Turkey's position 75 years after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk declared Turkey a republic.

"Turkey is NOT a Middle Eastern country. Turkey is not a European country. Turkey is Turkey. What Ataturk did was to dis-establish religion. He never used force in order to remove the veil and things like that... He secularized society. But he never closed down the mosques or theological schools."

Moreover, Yerebakan suggests the European Union is right in not inviting Turkey to open membership talks since he believes Turkey is not yet ready to join Europe.

"Definitely not -- Turkey is not ready. First of all it must improve, it must amend the whole of its constitution from A to Z. We have democratically elected governments in Turkey, legitimately elected MPs. But they are not representing public opinion. What makes Turkey essentially different from the rest of the European developed countries is that European governments act according to public opinion. But here, this is missing, absolutely."

In Istanbul, international relations professor Nilufer Narli foresees close economic and political relations between Turkey and the EU but she says Brussels is not about to invite Turkey to join the club.

"Don't think I am putting any blame on the Europeans. I know that Turkey was not able to meet some of the conditions required by Europe and secondly the population of Turkey -- the larger underclass of Turkey, economically makes Turkey look like it is composed of two countries. One of them is a Turkey that is developing and growing rich. The other one is a very disadvantaged Turkey. So that is why for the EU it may be difficult to digest Turkey. Also one of the conditions not met by Turkey was of course the human rights issue. This is why I am not very optimistic."

Narli says Ankara does not have answers to many of the EU's concerns on human rights.

Narli says Ankara does not appear to have any clearly defined strategy for dealing with the EU, in part because of Turkey's traditional policy of merely reacting to foreign policy problems as well as because of the shock felt in Ankara by the EU's refusal at the Luxembourg summit last December to invite Turkey to open membership talks.

The chairman of the Turkish parliament's foreign policy committee, Bulent Akarcali heads the Turkey-EU Joint Parliamentary Committee. He describes Turkish-EU relations as "passionate" and marked by prejudices.

"We have never been able to sit around the table without pressure, just to discuss the problems objectively... Unfortunately it will continue like that because of another passionate reason, the position of Greece. Greece is trying to transform its bilateral relations with Turkey to be the bilateral relations of Turkey with the EU. This is very dangerous. If this model is accepted by the European Union, the EU could be in conflict all over the world... and this would be the end of the European Union.

Akarcali downplays the effect of the Luxembourg summit. He says Turkey's economic, political, social and military advancement have nothing to do with the EU. In his words, "the EU did not contribute to anything in Turkey, financially or politically -- We did everything by ourselves."

And so, there is little prospect at present for a decisive improvement in Turkey's relations with Europe.