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Turkey: Leaders Present Brave Face On EU Crisis, But Concerns Run High

EU headquarters in Brussels Turkey is due to start entry talks with the European Union on 3 October, with a view to join the bloc no earlier than 2015. Ankara insists its membership bid is unaffected by the French and Dutch "no" votes on the EU constitution. But the time is critical for the three-year-old Islamic-rooted cabinet of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has done more than any of its predecessors to bring its legislation in line with EU standards.

Prague, 15 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- First, France and the Netherlands massively rejected the EU constitution in successive votes that partially reflect fears of the bloc’s expanding to Turkey.

Then, the votes helped European politicians opposed to Turkey’s accession consolidate their positions.

In Germany, the opposition Christian Democrats Union (CDU) is leading opinion polls ahead of the early general elections Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has called for September. Citing the French and Dutch referendums, CDU leader Angela Merkel called in early June for a review of Turkey’s membership bid.

France’s newly appointed interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is considered a leading contender to succeed President Jacques Chirac in 2007, has also poured cold water on Ankara’s EU ambitions.

Addressing leaders of his Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) ruling party, Sarkozy suggested on 11 June that rather than continue difficult accession talks with the EU, Turkey should content itself with a mere strategic partnership.
“After the political tsunami we’ve just gone through, is it reasonable to open negotiations with Turkey, since it is a big nation of Asia Minor, not of Europe?"

“After the political tsunami we’ve just gone through, is it reasonable to open negotiations with Turkey, since it is a big nation of Asia Minor, not of Europe?" Sarkozy asked. "The question is here, and I believe we would generate much less bitterness if we offered Turkey right now a privileged partnership rather than continue talks that began 40 years ago and that, for perfectly good reasons, have never come to any conclusion.”

Turkish leaders have tried to present a brave face following such developments, insisting the rejection of the EU constitution in France and the Netherlands should not be considered a “no” vote to the bloc’s further enlargement.

Government officials even seem relieved that EU leaders have decided to not put Turkey's entry bid on the agenda of the bloc's summit in Brussels on 16-17 June.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry has said that even if the EU charter is not ratified, the 2001 Nice Treaty -- which is generally seen as outlining the bloc’s expansion plans -- will remain in force.

Erdogan on 14 June denied that Turkey's EU ambitions could have influenced French and Dutch voters. He also said he was confident Ankara’s membership bid would not be affected by the current debate in EU countries.

”To be honest, I am not troubled with this question," Erdogan said. "What is on Turkey’s agenda is not ‘Will Turkey enter the EU, or will it not?’ What is on our agenda is that we start [accession] talks on 3 October.”

The message is clearly meant for the Turkish public, which remains generally supportive of Ankara’s EU bid.

Demir Murat Seyrek is the Brussels representative of ARI Movement, a nongovernmental group that promotes democracy awareness among Turkish youth. Seyrek claimed that behind these reassuring comments, Turkish leaders are increasingly concerned.

“The results of these referendums will generally affect Europe’s integration process and enlargement and no one can really argue it will not affect Turkey and [its] accession," Seyrek said. "Turkish leaders know this as well. Yet, at least for the time being, they pretend that this will not have any effect and that we will start negotiations talks on 3 October. They don’t want to endanger this date, so that explains their [attitude]."

The good news for Ankara, however, is that Britain will assume the rotating EU Presidency for six months starting from 1 July.

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government supports Ankara’s EU aspirations and many in the Turkish capital look forward to seeing it lead the bloc. Erdogan’s cabinet also hopes Britain’s presidency will help end the international isolation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which only Ankara recognizes.

Cyprus joined the EU in May 2004 along with nine other countries. The Greek Cypriots’ rejection of a UN plan to end the island’s 30-year division has de facto left its Turkish-occupied third outside of Europe’s jurisdiction. However, in recognition of the support given the UN reunification proposals by Turkish Cypriots, the EU has pledged to ease the international sanctions imposed on the TRNC after its creation in 1983.

Ankara in turn has promised to ratify a protocol extending its customs union with the EU to all 10 countries that joined the bloc in 2004, including Cyprus. EU foreign ministers have already endorsed the protocol and send it to Ankara for signature.

Once Ankara ratifies it, it will have met all the conditions needed to start accession talks.

Mensur Akgun, foreign policy adviser at the Istanbul-based Turkish Foundation for Economic and Social Studies (TESEV), said there is concern about isolated demands that Ankara meet additional requirements even before it opens EU talks.

“There are voices within the EU, especially in Greece, which claim that Turkey should also implement the [customs union] protocol," Akgun said. "There are also claims that Turkey should unilaterally normalize its relations with Armenia. This, of course, is bothering the Turkish public, decision-making circles and [others].”

Akgun said any EU move that could be interpreted as a sign of the bloc’s growing reluctance to admit Turkey might incite Erdogan’s cabinet to seek closer ties with the United States or look for possible alternative partnerships with Russia and China.

It could also weaken the Turkish leader Erdogan by adding fuel to the arguments of his opponents, both among the hard-line secularists and radical Islamists.

Finally, Akgun argued, it could affect the already difficult relations between Turkey’s civilian leadership and powerful army generals, who have come under relentless EU pressure to ease their grip on domestic policies.

“The military is supportive of the EU membership with some reservations," Akgun said. "[In that case,] they would most probably claim that their concerns have been vindicated and they would not be willing to make further concessions, especially on Cyprus, and the Cyprus problem would then become unmanageable.”

In the meantime, domestic support for Turkey's EU membership is weakening. A year ago, more than 85 percent of Turks favored the country’s accession bid. Today, ARI Movement’s Seyrek said, that figure has dropped to 64 percent.