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EU: Report On Turkey Appears At Inopportune Time

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union is about to publish its first progress report on Turkey since that country became a formal candidate for membership in the Union almost a year ago. The EU's crucial assessment -- which could touch on many shortcomings -- comes at a delicate moment, with several problems already weighing on Ankara's relations with its Western partners. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 1 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey will soon mark the first anniversary of its acceptance by the European Union as a candidate for eventual full membership in the 15-nation organization. After decades of delay, EU leaders accorded Turkey this formal status at their summit in Helsinki last December. And next week (Nov. 8) the European Commission will issue a key assessment of the progress Turkey has made during the past year.

The report is likely to sound an encouraging note, but it is not expected to sidestep Ankara's need to continue tackling wide-ranging changes in areas like human rights, governmental and institutional structures, and economic life.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen recently referred to the necessity for thorough change by saying that accession negotiations could only begin when "we are dealing with a different Turkey."

The annual report -- together with the expected publication of fresh details of an EU-Turkey Accession Partnership Accord -- does not come at a particularly good moment. That's because Turkey's relations with regional rival Greece, an EU member, have taken a notable turn for the worse in the past month.

Ties between Ankara and Athens had been unusually warm since the two neighbors sent aid to one another following devastating earthquakes last year. But ties were strained a few weeks ago when Greece withdrew from a NATO exercise that saw Greek troops on Turkish soil for the first time in some 80 years.

The Greek withdrawal came after disputes over the flight paths of Greek bombers taking part in the exercise. Turkish jets were scrambled to intercept the Greek planes. Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou later cancelled a plan to receive a peace award along with his Turkish counterpart, Ismael Cem.

In addition to that incident, the EU and Turkey are involved in a dispute concerning the development of the EU's new independent military force. Turkey is reportedly demanding a role in the decision-making for prospective military actions undertaken by the new force. The EU is unwilling to grant that role, and as a result Turkey is reported blocking aspects of cooperation between NATO and the EU.

Given this background, analysts say the content of the coming accession report is diplomatically very delicate. But has Turkey in fact made any progress toward reform in the past year?

Natalie Tocci of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies says not much in a practical sense:

"In terms of practical results, not that much has been done yet. But having said that, there has been a lot of debate -- which was absent before December [19]99 -- regarding the death penalty, regarding the reform of article 312 on freedom of expression. A lot of the issues are being debated both in media -- [in terms of] public opinion -- and among political circles -- parliamentarians, etc. -- so I think a process has begun."

But various analysts, Tocci included, have doubts the Turks fully realize the extent and depth of the changes in political practice and mentality which they will be required to make to achieve EU membership. "That's the real problem, Europe keeps mentioning questions of human rights, the Kurdish question, the death penalty. In a sense, these are just tips of the iceberg, and there is a whole, a real political revolution which Turkey would have to undergo in order to conform to European political norms."

She says the Turks have not appreciated the "political project which Europe is all about" -- and when they do, she says, they may be deterred from seeking membership.

Another Brussels-based analyst, Eberhardt Rhein of the European Policy Center, says resistance to joining the EU is already building in the right wing of Ankara's governing circles, as politicians begin to realize the extent of the required changes to their power structures. Rhein sees the biggest obstacle to meeting Euro-norms as the traditional role of the military in Turkish politics. He says:

"The strategic decisions in Turkey are still not a matter for the president and prime minister, but when it comes to the worst, the military have the final role, I am not saying that they have overstepped that role too excessively, but it is not part of our constitutional and traditional European approach." Rhein notes speculation that the present trouble with Greece over the NATO exercise could stem from Turkish military circles which find that the rapprochement with Athens has gone too far.

The analyst agrees that for some Turks the abridging of their traditions, which are so closely linked with the venerated national hero Kemal Ataturk, might prove too much. In any event, Rhein believes that Turkey has a lengthy and painful road ahead of it. He says: "It will take quite some time of learning, a mutual learning process, and during this process Turkey will have to accept what I call many, many unpleasant moments. Because, whatever the Union asks them to do, relates to what they [the Turks] consider sensitive matters."

Not surprisingly, some Turkish analysts see the situation in a rather more positive light. Seyfi Tashan, the director of the Foreign Policy Institute at Bilkent University in Ankara, says "significant" progress has been made in setting up official committees to deal with harmonization with the EU. And he believes the onus for an enlargement timescale is on the EU rather than on his own country. He says:

"There is progress in Turkey's homework. There is a lot to be done also, but many things depend on what shape Europe's enlargement process will take, and it will depend on whether Europe wishes to enlarge early or late." In addition, Tashan sees the present downturn in relations with Greece as a passing incident unlikely to have any long term impact.