Turkey -- which has been seeking European Union membership for more than 35 years -- took a major step forward today, when EU leaders meeting in Helsinki agreed in principle to accept it as a formal candidate for membership. Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.
Helsinki, 10 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey had been preparing itself for another rebuff. But EU leaders meeting in Helsinki today finally gave Ankara what it wanted: formal status as a candidate for Union membership. Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen said at a news briefing today:
"We have decided to confirm that Turkey is a candidate for membership in the European Union."
(Finland is the current holder of the rotating EU presidency.)
Acceptance as a candidate is only the first step for Ankara. Turkey has not yet been invited to open accession negotiations with the EU, and likely will not be invited to do so for some years. All candidates must meet certain political and economic standards -- known as the Copenhagen criteria -- before they can join.
Foreign Minister Ismael Cem said yesterday that it would not be tragic if the EU failed to confer candidate status on his country at this time. But despite that apparent nonchalance, Turkey's pride was at stake. Yet another rejection would have sent shock waves of anti-European feeling through the Ankara government and the Turkish public alike.
The issue of Turkey's candidacy was one of the most controversial facing the two-day summit in the Finnish capital. Most issues to arrive at the EU summit table have been decided far in advance, and are only rubber-stamped by the top leaders. This time, it was different. EU members had a real struggle to decide what to do.
Finnish Prime Minister Lipponen last night held pre-summit talks with Greek Prime Minister Kostas Simitis in an effort to avoid yet another Greek veto of Turkey's candidacy. Also present at those talks was the EU's new high representative for foreign and security policy, Javier Solana. They were seeking a formula which would advance Turkey's movement towards Europe, while at the same time meeting the conditions still being set by Greece.
Turkey's hostile relationship to neighbor -- and EU member -- Greece has been one of the main obstacles to EU membership. The Mediterranean island of Cyprus has been the biggest single stumbling block between the two. Cyprus has been divided since Turkey invaded the northern third of the island in 1974 after Greek moves to link Cyprus to Greece.
Cyprus is already a candidate for EU membership, and is expected later today to be invited to open formal negotiations. Greece wanted, among other things, assurances that Turkey would not block progress on Cyprus. But today Greek officials said that an agreement had been reached on Cyprus that would clear the way for Turkey to gain candidate status. No details were immediately available.
Greece is not the only EU member that has been critical of Turkey. Germany has pressured Turkey to improve its human rights record, especially with regard to its Kurdish minority.
At a press conference late last night, German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping issued a sharp reminder that Turkey has a long way to go before it can join the EU. On the issue of human rights, Scharping said bluntly:
"If Turkey wants to be a member of the European Union there must be change within Turkey in terms of democratic rights, respecting minorities, respecting human rights."
Meanwhile, how to pressure Russia about the growing humanitarian crisis in Chechnya is also a controversial issue at the summit. There have been calls for the summit to impose economic sanctions on Moscow to persuade it to end the fighting.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder -- in a remark seen as favoring sanctions against Moscow -- said Russia must be made to feel that there is a link between Western aid and the continuation of the conflict. But Finnish State Secretary Alec Aalto, speaking for the EU Presidency, said yesterday that it's too early to consider sanctions.
EU leaders are expected to discuss the Chechnya conflict over a working lunch today.