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Turkey: AKP Tries To Join European Conservative Group

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is seeking to join the powerful association of European conservative parties known as the European People's Party (EPP) group. That creates a delicate situation, as some of the EPP's member parties are Christian democrats who oppose Turkish membership in the European Union. In addition, the AKP has its roots in the Islamist movement. Does this mean the AKP would not fit in this "club," or is it compatible, as Turkey's prime minister claims?

Prague, 4 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is seeking to join the circle of major European conservative parties. But its road to European integration is likely to be bumpy, because not all the European parties support AKP's aim to take Turkey into the European Union as soon as possible.

The circle in question is the European Peoples' Party (EPP) group, an umbrella organization that brings together Christian-democratic parties and other conservatives in the European Parliament and the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently told EPP President Wilfried Martens that the AKP wants to join the politically powerful group. Martens quoted Erdogan as saying that his party is both conservative and democratic -- implying its suitability.

Martens, however, is quoted in a Brussels press interview ("European Voice," 12 March) as saying there would have to be talks about the "substance" of the application. That was taken as a reference to a potential clash of values between the AKP -- which has roots in Turkey's Islamic movement -- and the Christian-democratic parties.

Although now secular, the Christian-democratic parties still embrace Christian values. The same can also be said of the AKP in regard to Islamic values. Further, some of the Christian-democratic parties oppose Turkey's bid to join the European Union. One of them is the biggest party in the group, the German CDU/CSU.

The co-chairman of the European Parliament's delegation to Turkey, Joost Lagendijk, told RFE/RL: "The Christian democrats are the strongest opponents of Turkish entry into the EU. So it's -- how do you call it? -- a spicy decision for the AKP party, which is now the ruling party in Turkey, which is applying for closer cooperation and for the start of negotiations to join the political family that is, in fact, obstructing their entry into Europe."

Lagendijk, a member of the Greens party, noted the irony of the situation: "The funny thing is -- in a way an irony of history, as I call it -- that by joining this political family, they might also influence the viewpoints of the EPP on the particular question of Turkey joining the EU."

In fact, some would say that this is exactly Erdogan's intention -- namely, to neutralize opposition to Turkish entry into the EU. The Christian democrats would find their opposition much more difficult to sustain in logic if they admitted the AKP as one of their partner parties.

In Ankara, the director of Bilkent University's Foreign Policy Institute, Seyfi Tashan, said the European reluctance to embrace the AKP stems in part from fear of its Islamic leanings. "This party [AKP] has been considered by some people in Europe as being the Islamic party, and those who are opposing it are what you may call the supporters of the Christianity-versus-Islam idea," he said.

Tashan called this notion of a religious divide an outdated concept, in that all parties are now secular.

Be that as it may, things are not likely to advance quickly for the AKP. The chairman of the German CDU/CSU in the European Parliament, Hartmut Nassauer, goes to great lengths to point out his group's willingness to have good ties with Turkey and the AKP, but he sets limits to the relationship. Speaking about Erdogan's approach, he said: "We would be reluctant. We have not discussed it so far, and I don't see that it is very urgent to discuss it. We should organize good cooperation [with Turkey] on the level of the custom's union and all other considerations of privileged partnership. But there is, I think, no need to discuss membership."

Nassauer went on to say that although his party favors giving Turkey a "privileged partnership," he sees "no chance for the foreseeable future" that Turkey will become an EU member. And he said there are more pressing issues than the AKP's request. "We have a lot of problems with the actual [eastward] enlargement [of the EU]. This will demand the strength of the European Union for years, so I don't think we need a discussion on the membership of the AKP, Erdogan party, in the EPP," Nassauer said.

Turkey has for many years been an applicant for EU membership, but has not yet been granted negotiations with Brussels. However, EU leaders promised last December to open accession talks with Turkey if it meets the required political and economic criteria in a review set for December 2004.

To meet these criteria, Turkey will have to undertake wide-ranging reforms, including steps to eradicate torture, and to foster media freedom.