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Turkey: EU Entry Appears As Far Away As Ever

No Turkish flag yet. Turkey has been an applicant to join the European Union for almost as long as the bloc has been in existence. But despite what EU officials call "courageous" efforts at reform, there is always more to do. And now there are new complicating factors in Ankara's path.

Prague, 9 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's long-running bid to join the European Union may be under threat.

Senior European and Turkish analysts say that in the EU, supporters of Turkish membership are becoming more cautious. They fear, among other things, that admitting Turkey could potentially open the door to more Islamic extremism in Europe.

"Accepting Turkey in [the union] would be the best manifestation to the Muslim world that Europe is not about the clash of civilizations, that Europe is not looking for confrontation with the Muslim world."
France, for one, this week signaled its position may be shifting away from Turkish entry. The ruling conservative party of President Jacques Chirac said it would oppose Turkish membership in the bloc in the campaign for June elections to the European Parliament.

Polish analyst Aleksander Smolar, head of the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw, sees the issue this way.

"There is a fear and a quite clear manifestation of negative attitudes to such a perspective [as Turkish EU membership]; the situation in the Middle East and also the problems with Muslim minorities in Western Europe contributes to rising fear of having such a big Muslim country [as Turkey] in the European Union," Smolar said.

Smolar predicts that the question of whether to grant Turkey membership will be the next profoundly divisive issue facing the EU. Last year, the union suffered one of its deepest fissures in the last half century when members could not agree on what position to take on the U.S.-led Iraq war.

In Ankara, the director of the Foreign Policy Institute of Bilkent University, Seyfi Tashan, also says the fear factor must be taken into account as a possible hindrance to Turkish EU membership.

"It's difficult to assess whether [Turkish membership] can help or can scare people -- both scenarios are possible," Tashan said.

Smolar also sees the positive side of the question, namely that the turbulence in the Muslim world could actually help instead of hinder Turkey's EU aspirations.

"Accepting Turkey in [the union] would be the best manifestation to the Muslim world that Europe is not about the clash of civilizations, that Europe is not looking for confrontation with the Muslim world, and also, a factor which is very important is that giving this prize [of membership] to Turkey would be an award for democratic transformation and modernization on the largely Western pattern," Smolar said.

Smolar notes that, in any case, membership was promised to Turkey many years ago.

The European Commission has said it will issue a recommendation before the end of the year on whether to open formal negotiations on Turkish membership.

It appears that recommendation could go either way. Certainly Ankara's case was not helped by a European Parliament report last week that criticized Turkish shortcomings sharply.

The report said Turkey does not yet meet the "Copenhagen" political criteria -- the EU standards on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

The report said the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made courageous steps in the face of strong resistance toward political and economic reform. But it said more progress is needed, noting that "torture practices and mistreatment" still continue and that little progress has been made in bringing torturers to justice.

The parliament's report was also critical of repression of political parties and intimidation of human rights campaigners, as well as of restrictions on freedom of expression and poor treatment of religious, ethnic, and linguistic minorities, including Kurds.

The European Parliament's report is not binding on the European Commission.

In contrast, there has been praise for Turkey's role in trying to bring about a settlement of the division of Cyprus. EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen went out of his way last week to say that Turkey had played a "very constructive and cooperative role in the negotiations."

The Cyprus issue however remains fraught with diplomatic booby traps for Turkey. A solution for Cyprus could be at hand when Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots vote in separate referendums on 24 April on whether to accept a reunification plan backed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. But analyst Gabriel von Toggenburg of the European Academy in Bolzano explains there are complications.

"There are many people who argue that the Greek Cypriot side wants to oppose the Annan plan because they think that once the [EU membership] negotiations with Turkey begin, they could succeed in having a more favorable settlement than the Annan plan, because they could exert even more pressure on the Turkish side," von Toggenburg said.

Under this scenario, the Greek Cypriots would vote "no" at the 24 April referendum. This would mean that Cyprus would remain divided, and that the Turkish Cypriot north of the island would stay outside the EU when the Greek Cypriot part of the island goes into the EU on 1 May. The Greek Cypriots could then use their veto to block membership negotiations with Turkey.