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Turkey: Former Diplomat Discusses EU Challenges With RFE/RL

Turkey has begun its membership talks with the European Union. The start of talks early today in Luxembourg came after difficult negotiations among EU foreign ministers and objections by Austria that had threatened to kill Turkey’s hopes for membership. Despite the successful outcome, Ankara now faces a decade or more of tough reforms that in the end still do not guarantee membership. Turkey must adopt EU laws in 35 areas or “chapters,” including justice, social, foreign, and security policy. RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan discussed the challenges ahead with Resat Arim, a former Turkish ambassador to Berlin, Beijing, and Amman, and now with the Foreign Policy Institute at Ankara’s Bilkent University.

RFE/RL: How are people and the media in Turkey reacting to Monday’s developments?

Resat Arim: We have been working very hard on this. This is a major project for Turkey. As you know, since the time of [Mustafa Kemal] Ataturk, the new republic of Turkey has turned west. We have, for instance, adopted the Swiss civil code. So, the matters relating to the person, to the family -- many things, civil matters -- have been dealt with using the law dating from 1926. So there are many laws, institutions, geared to European models.

RFE/RL: The road ahead is long, and fraught with pitfalls. What do you see as the main hurdles for Turkey in its quest to join the EU?

Arim: We adopted the [EU] customs union in 1996. Among the candidate countries, no one had assumed the responsibilities of the customs union before becoming a member. Therefore, I presume that during the accession talks with the European Union, the economic questions will be solved rather easily, because we already have a customs union.

RFE/RL: What about some of the more problematic chapters?

Arim: For instance, agriculture. I read, and we all read, that agriculture will be one of the difficult chapters. Already, we have a large agriculture sector. Whether it is very profitable [is a question].

RFE/RL: What about the chapters on security and justice?

Arim: There won’t be many problems, really, because during the last three or four years, we have made many changes in our law to conform to the Copenhagen criteria [on democracy and rule of law].

RFE/RL: Even with regard to, say, the Kurdish issue? I know this was part of the Copenhagen criteria, but some say there are still problems with the way Turkey is implementing the reforms with regards to its Kurdish minority.

Arim:: Not much, really. We have people of Kurdish origin. But they are not a minority; they are first-class citizens. The question was only about their ability to use their own language and to have their own press and broadcasting. Already in the last couple of years, we adopted laws, changed many things. So the people of Kurdish origin can use their language; there can be broadcasting in Kurdish, and there can be classes in Kurdish.

RFE/RL:: But, obviously, with regard to European public opinion, people are still very skeptical about the extent to which some of these reforms have been implemented, and also about things such as the recent indictment of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk following an interview in which he spoke about the Ottoman massacre of Armenians.

Arim:: There’s a case against him, which we very much hope will be dropped. A few mishaps, really, one of the few mishaps. This is not the rule in Turkey. People are not indicted, or have cases brought against them, because of their views. The press and the broadcasters and the government have criticized [this case] very harshly.

RFE/RL:: As part of the negotiations, Turkey will have to recognize Greek Cyprus. How difficult is that going to be, and when can we expect it to happen?

Arim:: Very far off. [Laughs.] Very far off. Turkey cannot really recognize Greek Cypriots as the government of Cyprus. So Turkey cannot say that Turkey recognizes the Republic of Cyprus, as it is. But, in the meantime, if the Cyprus problem is resolved -- and we very much hope the United Nations secretary-general makes another effort to bring the parties together -- and if there is a settlement, then of course, the Turkish government already said it would recognize the ultimate negotiated [settlement].

RFE/RL:: One of the possible pitfalls for Turkey is the role that European public opinion may end up playing in the accession process. Austria and France have already said that they will put the question of Turkey’s entry to a referendum. What is the thinking in Turkey about how to overcome the negative public opinion in some places?

Arim:: Of course, European public opinion has not really been worked upon by their governments so far. There will be a referendum at the end of the negotiations. By that time, probably, public opinion in many European countries will be very informed about the advantages of having Turkey in the European Union. Mostly, this is the job of governments there. But also, we will try to help.

See also:

RFE/RL Special: European Union Expands Eastwards