The apparent decision on Cyprus removes one obstacle. EU ministers are close to finalizing an agreement that Ankara must recognize the island's Greek south before Turkey can officially become a member -- a step that may be 10 or more years away.
But despite such resolutions, there remains a general sense of unease about Turkey's claim to a place in Europe. This feeling was evident yesterday. At the very beginning of the event, conference Chairwoman Karianne Westrheim was forced to observe that not all participants had been able to come.
“Some of our speakers cannot be here today, including Tuncer Bakirhan, the president of [the Kurdish political party] Dehap. Because of his statement related to the Kurdish question in Turkey, his freedom of movement has been limited, and he is banned [from traveling] abroad," Westrheim said. "We hope that the government of Turkey will understand that this attitude is unacceptable within the European Union.”
Other notable absentees included European Parliament President Josep Borrell and EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn. Both had initially agreed to address the conference, but stayed away in the end, citing pressing engagements elsewhere.
Standing in for Borrell was one of the vice presidents of the European Parliament, Edward McMillan Scott. McMillan Scott is a leading British conservative member of the European Parliament (MEP), as well as a parliamentary rapporteur on Turkey. He set the tone for the conference by endorsing Turkey's EU ambitions -- but with caution.
“My simple message today is that the process of change which has begun in Turkey, which has led to a positive vote in the European Parliament on the report by Camiel Eurlings earlier this year [actually December 2004], will be followed by much vigilance from all the political groups in the European Parliament into a whole range of issues that affect EU-Turkey relations, but based, as Madam chairman has already remarked, on the core principles for enlargement -- the Copenhagen criteria of 1993,” McMillan Scott said.
The three panelists that followed all used the experience of Turkey’s Kurdish community to highlight serious and persistent shortcomings in the country’s recently revived record of political and constitutional reforms.
The only Kurdish representative on the panel, Hatap Dicle, a former member of the Turkish parliament, was clearest in his support for Turkey’s EU membership. In 1994, Dicle -- together with three other Kurdish members of Turkey's parliament -- was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Amnesty International described them as prisoners of conscience jailed for nonviolent promotion of a Kurdish political identity.
Now, Dicle told the Brussels conference, Turkey’s EU membership is seen as a “source of great hope” among the country’s Kurdish community. However, he indicated, Turkey's road to European rights standards will be a long one. He said the Turkish Army, with the connivance of the government, has since early 2004 conducted a renewed campaign of violence and murder in Kurdish areas. Dicle called on the Turkish government to recognize a Kurdish political and cultural identity that he said would not seek to undermine the integrity of the country.
Vittorio Agnoletto, an Italian MEP who is the coordinator of the Kurdish support group in the European Parliament, noted that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayiip Erdogan recently hinted at possible talks with the Kurdish community. But, Agnoletto added, this has not happened.
Luc van den Brande, a rapporteur for Turkey on the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly Monitoring Committee, said Turkey must ratify the European convention on the rights of ethnic minorities. He noted that Turkey has begun reforms in theory, but has problems implementing even those dealing with “basic human rights.”
European Parliament Vice President McMillan Scott spoke for a growing number of European politicians when he wrapped up his speech. After officially encouraging Turkey's European ambitions, he offered a more somber personal view.
“I was one of those who voted for Turkish negotiations to begin. But, speaking personally now, I remain to be convinced that Turkish membership [in the EU] in the present circumstances would be benefit either to the people of Turkey -- including the Kurdish people -- of to the people of the European Union," McMillan Scott said. "We are at a sensitive moment in the evolution of the history of the European Union and I don’t think I’m misleading you in telling you that there are very, very divided opinions in the European Parliament on that question.”
McMillan Scott's words left few with the feeling that Turkey will have to work hard to overcome what is widely seen as its chronic lack of progress in order to hold on to its EU ambitions.