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Turkey: Ankara Faces Long, Arduous Road To EU Membership

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Following the recent decision made by the European Union not to set a date for entry talks with Turkey before late 2004, many in Ankara have accused the 15-member bloc of being an exclusive "Christian club." Brussels says its decision is motivated exclusively by concerns over the human rights situation in a country where the conservative military exerts great influence on domestic politics. But, as recent controversy has shown, public opinions in Europe do not seem ready yet to invite a Muslim country with a population of nearly 68 million.

Prague, 23 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As Turkey is trying to make the best of its failure to accelerate its membership bid into the European Union, there is much debate in Ankara about what is generally perceived there as Brussels's insistence on procrastinating formal accession talks.

At an enlargement meeting held on 12-13 December in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, European leaders rebuked Turkey's pressing demands for early entry negotiations.

Instead, the bloc -- which extended an invitation to 10 European countries -- offered to review Ankara's candidacy in late 2004 with an eye to opening accession talks the following year.

Paragraph 19 of the final declaration adopted at the summit reads that the EU will open negotiations "without delay" if the European Council in December 2004, on the basis of a report from the European Commission, decides that Turkey fulfills the so-called "Copenhagen criteria." In the meantime, Brussels says it encourages Turkey "to pursue energetically its reform process."

EU leaders also agreed to increase funding to help Turkey's new cabinet extirpate the country from its worst economic recession in nearly 60 years -- a pledge the European Commission materialized on 20 December by approving 126 million euros in pre-accession aid to Ankara.

While warning that Turkey will face a long an arduous road to membership, European leaders have tried to convince Ankara that the decision reached in Copenhagen was an important step forward in bilateral relations. Pat Cox, the chairman of the European Parliament, has said he hopes Turkish leaders would not misinterpret what he believes is a "positive message" from Brussels: "With regard to Turkey, I believe that the decision, which has been arrived at, is itself a significant, measurable, and visible deepening of the EU-Turkey enlargement and is, for Turkey, the most visible marker on its road to European Union membership in more than four decades."

Turkey initiated its rapprochement with Europe in 1963 by signing a partnership agreement with what was then called the European Economic Community. Although Ankara officially applied for membership into the bloc in 1987, it was granted candidate status only three years ago at an EU summit held in the Finnish capital, Helsinki.

Brussels insists that, as a prerequisite to accession talks, Ankara must fulfill a series of political criteria that includes stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, rule of law, human rights, and respect for and protection of its minorities.

In a last-minute bid to boost its chances of obtaining a date for accession talks in Copenhagen, Ankara in October 2001 and on 3 August this year adopted a series of constitutional and legal changes that theoretically provide for greater civil rights, notably for its 12 million Kurds.

Turkey's parliament, the Grand National Assembly, also lifted 15 years of emergency rule in southeastern Kurdistan and abolished the death penalty in peacetime -- a decision that saved jailed Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan from the gallows.

Yet the EU says this is not enough and that Turkey does not yet meet the Copenhagen criteria. In Turkey, some have denounced Brussels's alleged "double standard policy," saying many countries invited to join the bloc do not meet the Copenhagen criteria either.

But as EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said on 17 December, the bloc wants Turkey not only to legislate reforms but also to implement them.

"It is not sufficient for us to see that torture is prohibited on paper. We want to see the day where people are not tortured in police stations," Verheugen told the European Parliament.

In a report released in September, the UK-based Amnesty International human rights watchdog said last year's constitutional amendments had failed to end the widespread use of torture on police detainees.

Adding to the EU's concerns, private broadcasts in minority languages remain prohibited despite recent legal changes. Also on 20 December, a leftist inmate starved to death in Istanbul, bringing to 63 the number of fatalities in a 24-month-old nationwide hunger strike protesting Turkey's prison system.

Putting a brave face on the outcome of the Copenhagen summit, leaders of the Adalet ve Kalkinma (Justice and Development) moderate Islamic Party that came to power in the wake of the 3 November early legislative polls have vowed to continue with reforms, regardless of the EU's final verdict.

Speaking to reporters at the end of the summit, Turkey's new prime minister, Abdullah Gul, claimed reforms were being carried out for the sake of the people, not for the sole purpose of Ankara's joining the EU: "Our path, the path of Turkey is clear. These [reform] packages -- be they those pertaining to human rights, those aimed at raising the level of democratic standards, or those regarding the economy -- are being implemented for the sake of the Turkish people. This is what really matters. Had there not been the issue of Turkish-EU relations, these [reform] packages would have been implemented anyway because the Turkish people deserve them."

Justice and Development, which has an overwhelming majority of seats in the legislature, has pledged to replace the restrictive constitution adopted 20 years ago in the wake of the 1980 military coup.

The plan is likely to win the support of the left-wing Republican's People Party, or CHP, the sole opposition group in parliament, which has vowed to help Gul's cabinet foster Turkey's EU membership bid.

CHP has already backed constitutional changes that could have allowed Justice and Development Chairman Recep Tayyip Erdogan contest planned by-elections in Eastern Anatolia early next year and thus become prime minister. Yet, President Ahmet Necdet Sezer on 19 December vetoed the decision, saying the changes were meant to satisfy Erdogan's political ambitions.

Barred from standing as a candidate in the last elections because of a past conviction for allegedly inciting to religious hatred, Erdogan remains ineligible for premiership despite being seen as Turkey's de facto leader.

Constitutional bans imposed on politicians convicted for alleged religious or ethnic sedition have been widely criticized both at home and abroad.

Likewise, wide powers bestowed on the military through the influential National Security Council -- Turkey's main decision-making body -- have been a source of major concern for Brussels, as EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten recalled on the sidelines of the Copenhagen summit: "What we have said to Turkey is [that], to start negotiations, you have to demonstrate that you share our values, that you meet the criteria which were first agreed upon in this city [Copenhagen], dealing with issues like the abuse of human rights, torture, freedom of the media, freedom of religious worship, the position of the military in politics. If Turkey can demonstrate that it meets those criteria, then the heads of government, at the end of 2004, will, I am sure, give a thumbs-up to the opening of negotiations."

In a report published last month, the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights noted an "unprecedented acceleration" of the reform process in recent months. However, the group said it did not expect the role of Turkey's National Security Council to be downgraded any time soon.

In comments reprinted on 17 December in the Istanbul-based "Milliyet" daily newspaper, Gul pledged to accelerate reforms so that changes required to qualify for membership into the bloc would be ready next year. That, Gul added, could help bring forward the start of talks to join the EU.

Yet whether Brussels will agree to accelerate negotiations remains unclear.

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair -- who supports early negotiations with Ankara -- hinted at that possibility during the Copenhagen summit. Yet, other EU leaders, such as German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder or French President Jacques Chirac, seem unwilling to alter the tentative time frame given to Ankara.

Many in Turkey see Paris as the main obstacle to Ankara's EU membership, especially since former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing on 7 November said enlargement in the direction of this Muslim country with a population of nearly 68 million would mean "the end of the EU."

Those remarks triggered an uproar in Turkey and public debate in France. They also added fuel to the arguments of those in Turkey who criticize the European Union as being an exclusive "Christian club."

Speaking to reporters after meeting Schroeder and Chirac on the sidelines on the Copenhagen summit, Gul said the decision not to give his country a firm date for entry talks might have been prompted by concerns over possible negative European public opinion: "Recent developments have shown us that the public opinions of the peoples of certain EU country members have been taken into consideration. It has become apparent that new conditions have been added to the Copenhagen criteria in line with these public opinions, but, as I already said, Turkey will continue on its path [toward reforms]."

A decision to invite Ankara into the EU will require a unanimous decision by the enlarged 25-member bloc, but not necessarily the approval of voters in member countries. Yet some -- in France, notably -- have suggested that a referendum be called to decide on the issue.

In comments printed in "Le Monde" on 27 November, ahead of the Copenhagen summit, European parliamentarian and France's former Socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard -- a strong advocate of Turkey's entry -- cautioned against too much haste, saying a "no" popular vote would be much more detrimental to Ankara that a decision to delay the beginning of formal entry talks. Therefore, he said, there is an urgent need for public debate on the issue.