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Turkey: Prospects Rising For Setting Date On EU Entry Negotiations

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Turkey is becoming the focus of attention in the run-up to the European Union's summit in Copenhagen, which begins on 12 December. Ankara is pressing hard for the summit, which is dedicated to the EU's eastward enlargement, to set a date for the start of membership negotiations. The EU states seem to be moving in that direction, but they are not quite there yet.

Prague, 9 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turks have a reputation for determination and negotiation, and these twin characteristics have been brilliantly displayed during Ankara's campaign to gain a date for the start of membership negotiations with the European Union. Turkey wants the EU's two-day Copenhagen summit, which begins on 12 December, to set the date, and it's close to achieving its aim.

In recent months and with increasing tempo, it has kept its case for membership before the international media and has succeeded, among other things, in getting the United States to publicly support its bid for membership.

However, the few remaining steps toward achieving that goal will probably prove more difficult to negotiate. That's because the EU's two most powerful members, Germany and France, have agreed that Turkey should wait until 2004, when its application will be reviewed, to check its progress toward meeting EU membership criteria. If the review is favorable, membership negotiations would be opened by mid-2005.

The Turkish government, however, rejects the notion of further delay. As Resat Arim, a member of the board of the Foreign Policy Institute at Turkey's Bilkent University, put it, the Turkish side would deplore the absence of a firm date. "This would be very bad indeed, because it would show that the European Union is not fulfilling its part of the deal," Arim said.

Arim asserted that Turkey has carried out its side of the bargain by implementing wide-ranging reforms designed to improve its performance in such areas as human rights and free speech. And he pointed out the enormous investment of time that has been made. "The process started already 40 years ago, when Turkey made its first association agreement, and in this agreement it was said that the aim was to have full membership [for Turkey]. Then, in 1987, we made our application for full membership -- now that is 15 years ago -- and it was only in Helsinki [in 1999] that they declared that Turkey is a candidate for membership," Arim said.

Critics would respond by saying that over those 40 years, Turkey has never met what are now defined as the "Copenhagen criteria" of political and human rights norms.

Peter Zervakis is a senior researcher at the Bonn-based Center for European Integration. He said that the big package of reforms enacted over the course of this year exists to a large extent only on paper. Implementation is still lacking, and while that is so, the European Commission cannot arrive at a conclusion about Turkey's compliance.

There are also practical considerations that make Turkey's accession a daunting prospect. With its population of some 65 million people, and accompanying voting rights, it would immediately become one of the EU's heavyweight members. As senior researcher Gabriel von Toggenburg of the European Academy in Bolzano, Italy, put it: "One problem is, of course, the institutional problem in that Turkey is completely oversized compared with the other candidate countries. If you look at the other ones, you see that they are all -- in EU terms -- small or medium-sized countries, with the sole exception of Poland."

Toggenburg said changes in EU institutions took place at the 2000 Nice summit, where room in EU structures was made for candidates from Central and Eastern Europe. The composition of councils was decided and votes assigned to each of the prospective new members.

Turkey was not included in that reorganization, but there was some discussion of the eventual changes that would be necessary to accommodate Turkey. No action was taken at that time.

There is also the question of how expensive and controversial EU policies -- like the common agricultural policy, or CAP -- could be successfully extended to cover a country as poor and as vast as Turkey. There is already trouble trying to get the CAP to cover Poland, which has a big and backward farming sector. Present EU criteria for regional and structural funds would also likely have to be scrapped, because cash would not be available to cover Turkey's vast needs.

However, aid issues aside, Turkey and the EU have healthy contacts in terms of economic activities. Toggenburg said: "Turkey is, as you know, from an economic point of view, the most integrated applicant state. All the other applicant states, as things stand now, are less integrated with the European Union than is Turkey. Turkey has already a customs union [with the EU]. Meanwhile, the other candidate states form only a free-trade area [with the EU]."

One good omen as the Copenhagen summit approaches is the fact that Valery Giscard d'Estaing, head of the EU's constitutional convention, has softened his earlier controversial remarks that Turkish entry would mean what he called "the end of the European Union."

In his latest remarks, he said a "wait-and-see" attitude is best.