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Turkey: How Will Islamic Party's Victory Affect EU Bid?

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Turkey's moderate Islamic Justice and Progress Party, which will have an outright majority of seats in the new parliament, has vowed to pursue entry into the European Union. Brussels has so far refused to set a date for entry talks with Ankara -- a delay due mainly to European concerns over human-rights issues.

Prague, 6 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey has emerged from its general election on 3 November with the prospect of a strong government. The moderate Islamic party, the Justice and Progress Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma), or AKP, swept to an impressive victory, and will be able to govern alone.

The AKP's leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, says bringing Turkey into the European Union will be a top priority of the new government. The Turks want a date set for the beginning of membership negotiations at the EU's Copenhagen summit in December, and officials have said Ankara's relations with Brussels will be affected if no date is forthcoming.

In fact, they are very unlikely to receive an invitation to negotiate from the Copenhagen summit.

The reason is contained in the words of EU Executive Commission spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori. Commenting on the election result, he said: "We just take note of the result, [and that] this was a choice democratically expressed. But as for the rest -- and as for all the other candidate countries -- what counts are deeds and not just words. And this is why we have to now wait until this new government starts into force and starts action."

Given the timeframe involved -- the Copenhagen summit will be in the middle of next month -- there will be too little time for the EU to monitor Turkey's progress toward meeting the so-called "Copenhagen criteria" for membership. Despite progress made by the last government in Ankara, the EU still has basic concerns about failings in Turkey's observance of human rights, including the use of torture.

Not only that, there is the question of whether the AKP will prove as stable and moderate as it says it will. Erdogan has promised his party will face the world and integrate into the European mainstream. The head of Bilkent University's Foreign Policy Institute, Seyfi Tashan, believes there is a good chance of this. He says:

"This party (the AKP) has done away with extremist Islam. The extremists did very badly in the election -- I mean by that the [of former Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin] Erbekan team. This [AKP] team is a broader consensus of some former Islamists, plus liberals and conservatives."

Tashan sees the party as having secured most of the Turkish electorate's center votes, and even some from the left. He suggests this will help anchor the party in moderation and secularism.

However, Belgian-based independent analyst Stefan Maarteel is not so sure. He says: "One the one hand they [the AKP] say they are not an Islamitic party in the strict sense of the word, but instead like a Christian Democratic party in Europe, which sees religion as something for private life. But on the other hand, it could of course be that now they are in power they will change and follow a strict Islamitic policy."

Maarteel says it's difficult to say what the party will do about improving human rights, and solving such major issues as Kurdish discontent. In addition, the AKP has said little about how it plans to approach the thorny issue of the divided island of Cyprus. But the fact that Erdogan's first trip since the election success will be to Greece suggests a readiness to compromise. Greek Premier Kostas Simitis has also recently indicated readiness for compromise.

With all this hanging in the air, still unresolved, Maarteel sees little chance of the EU taking a positive stand at the Copenhagen summit. He says: "There is too much uncertainty now about what will follow this change of power. There are hopes, but it could turn completely the other way."

Illustrating the delicacy of EU-Turkish ties is a row which has developed over criminal charges filed in a Turkish court against five German charitable foundations. The groups are charged with espionage and clandestine activities to undermine the Turkish state. Among them are such famous organizations as the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Heinrich Boell Institute. The accusations reportedly stem from the foundation's activities such as inviting Kurdish leaders to debates.

The case has aroused the anger of members of the European Parliament. The head of the German Christian Democrat faction in the parliament, Hartmut Nassauer, says the case demonstrates that "Turkey is far from fulfilling all the criteria for joining the EU." Nassauer said Ankara's behavior is reminiscent of the "old way of doing things in the East bloc."