Prague, 5 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Finally, a high European Union official has said openly and in his own name what for years has only been whispered in corridors or told to journalists by sources requesting anonymity: The EU's 15 member states really do not want Turkey, a nation of 65 million mostly Moslem inhabitants, to become a member -- even though they would like their neighbor and NATO ally to retain close ties with the West.
The official who dared to state that fact in public yesterday was a blunt-spoken Dutchman, Foreign Minister Hans Van Mierlo. Talking to a European Parliament Committee in Brussels on behalf of the Netherlands' current EU presidency, van Mierlo said it "was time for us in Europe to be honest" about Turkey.
"There is a problem with a large Moslem state," he told the parliamentarians. "Do we want that in Europe? It is an unspoken question."
There were other problems with Turkey as well, van Mierlo continued, citing Turkey's bad human-rights record and its chronic tendency to nettle EU members. "From Turkey," he said, "we always hear statements we don't like."
Van Mierlo's candor was a far cry from the usual EU public line, repeated last week to Turkish Foreign Minister Tansu Ciller at a Rome meeting with her counterparts from the Union's five largest members -- Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. That line has it that Ankara, which has been formally associated with Brussels for three decades, has "every right" to aspire to full EU membership, that there are "no obstacles in principle" to its entry.
But first, as the five ministers repeated to Ciller, Turkey must make progress in three areas: human rights; its treatment of a Kurdish separatist insurgency; and its long-standing disputes with Greece, an EU member.
In recent months, Ciller has several times threatened to hold up NATO's scheduled enlargement to the East if Turkey's aspirations for EU membership remain frustrated. Ankara's frustration has intensified in the past year as the EU made well-publicized preparations itself to expand eastward and start negotiations with some or all of the 10 Central and East European nations seeking entry. It was further exacerbated by the European Parliament's freezing five months ago of some $500 million in funds promised to Turkey under a customs-union accord it earlier signed with the EU.
The customs-union accord has, in fact, remained a dead letter from the day it was signed in June, 1995. First Greece, during its Aegean Sea mini-crisis with the Turkey, vetoed any immediate disbursement of funds.
Then the EU's Parliament took even stronger action, condemning what it saw as Ankara's continuing human-rights violations both in Turkey and in Cyprus. The Parliament was particularly angry because Turkey had pledged to improve its human-rights record when it signed the customs union. The leader of the body's largest political bloc -- British Labor member Pauline Green, who heads the Socialist group -- declared that the EU had repeatedly been "deceived" by Turkey and spoke of what she called "betrayal."
As Turkey's frustration has grown, so has the EU's -- and the United States' -- concern with the evolution of Turkish politics. Former Prime Minister Ciller is now part of an Islamist-led government, headed by Necmettin Erbakan, that was installed last Summer, even though Erbakan's Islamic Welfare Party had gained only a quarter of the votes in a general election several months before. Since his installation, Erbakan has strengthened Turkey's ties with Islamic countries -- including neighboring Iraq and Iran -- and de-emphasized its links with the West.
But Erbakan may not be allowed to continue Turkey's own turn to the East for much longer. Yesterday, both Turkey's main opposition party and, more important, its secular-minded military leadership signaled their growing impatience with Erbakan and militant Islam. The Democratic Left Party said it would file a censure motion against the government in order to preserve the nation's secular democracy.
The Army paraded tanks and other military vehicles through an Islamist-controlled district of Ankara in a show of strength that amounted to a warning. The mayor of the district was detained by a state security court order for having allowed a "Jerusalem Night" demonstration to turn into an anti-Israel protest last week.
Three times in the past 37 years, the Turkish military -- which now has strong ties with Israel's army -- has taken over the government to protect, it said, the country's secular constitution. Some press reports from Turkey this week indicate that the question on many minds is now not if, but when, there will be a fourth military coup.