Prague, 12 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Strongly supported by the United States, Turkey has begun a new effort to establish its credentials as a candidate for full membership in the European Union. Not for the first time, Ankara's effort centers on improving the country's human rights record, a long-time target of Western criticism and a major hurdle for Turkey's early admission into the 15-nation EU.
On Monday, Deputy Premier -- and Foreign Minister -- Tansu Ciller called a press conference to declare that her Islamic-led government would end what she acknowledged was the widespread practice of torture in the country. "Whenever torture is mentioned anywhere in the world, Turkey's name is invoked," Ciller said. "This is a shame we cannot bear."
Ciller pledged that torture "will be wiped out from our nation." She said that governors and police chiefs of every Turkish province would now be held responsible for stopping torture. She even promised to make unannounced personal visits to police stations to check whether the new torture regulations were being implemented.
Ciller's remarks amounted to an unusually pointed avowal of what Western human-rights organizations and other critics have repeatedly contended: that torture is systematic in -- and, many say, endemic to -- Turkey. For years, Turkish high officials have insisted this was not the case, claiming that those responsible for what they said were isolated, sporadic torture incidents were always punished.
In a follow-up statement yesterday, Ciller's Foreign Ministry announced a broader series of measures designed to improve the country's human rights image. The measures focus not only on preventing torture of those held in police custody, but also reducing legally sanctioned detention periods, intensifying the search for missing people and increasing freedom of expression. The Ministry said that its goal was "to drop the issue of human rights both from Turkey's agenda and from the Turkish-EU relationship before the end of this year."
That, even many Turkish officials would admit, will take some doing. But remarks made yesterday by State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns, and clearly not merely coincidental with the issuance of the Foreign Ministry statement, show that the United States intends to back to the hilt Turkey's campaign to refurbish its image in the West. Burns hailed Ankara's new human rights reform package and said EU members should give Turkey what he called "high marks" for its efforts.
Burns also said that U.S. ambassadors in the capitals of the EU's 15 member states had been instructed to reaffirm to their host governments what he called Washington's "very strong views" on future Turkish membership in the Union. He then stated those views in the strong, staccato phrases that have quickly become the hallmark of his new boss, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: "Turkey is a European country," Burns declared. "Turkey has its roots in Europe. Turkey's security is based in Europe. And Turkey's future...ought to be grounded in Europe."
The trouble is, as Burns acknowledged, the United States does not have a vote in the EU and doesn't "always see eye-to-eye with (EU) governments" on Turkish issues. In fact, both the unusually strong U.S. language and Ankara's new image-polishing campaign came as a reaction to perhaps the sharpest blow to Turkish hopes for early EU admission ever administered by West European politicians. At a meeting in Brussels early last week, leaders of Europe's Center-Right parties said unanimously that they did not consider Turkey a serious EU applicant.
The leaders subscribing to that view, most of them Christian Democrats, included German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Italian Premier Romano Prodi and Spanish Premier Jose Maria Aznar. Former Belgian Premier Wilfred Maartens spelled out their reasons for opposing Turkish entry in terms almost diametrically opposed to those used by Burns.
"Turkey is not a candidate...either short-term or long," said Maartens, who now heads the Center-Right European People's Party in the EU's Parliament. "We want the closest cooperation possible (with Turkey), but we are creating a European Union. That is a E-u-r-o-p-e-a-n project." In other words -- words that Maartens diplomatically did not use -- Moslem Turkey can never be a part of Judeo-Christian Europe.
The "civilization gap," as some analysts have dubbed it, between Turkey and the EU has long been the fundamental -- if seldom admitted -- reason why Turkey, granted associate status 34 years ago, has never been able to attain full EU membership. Only in recent months have EU leaders been willing to acknowledge that reality and break the taboo about discussing it in public. Five weeks ago, Foreign Minister Hans van Mierlo of the Netherlands, which currently holds the EU's revolving presidency, told a European Parliament Committee that it was "time for us in Europe to be honest" about Turkey.
"There is a problem with a large Moslem state," said van Mierlo, who does not share that view. "Do we want it in Europe? It is an unspoken question."
Thanks to van Mierlo the question has now finally been uttered, and the candidly expressed views of EU Center-Right leaders last week owe much to his breaking of the taboo. But with offended Turkish officials threatening to block the eastward expansion of NATO (in which Ankara is a full member) if Turkey is not assured of eventual EU membership, the question is now far more complicated. That's why the United States, pushing hard for early NATO enlargement, has now decided to go all-out in pressuring EU members to re-establish Turkey's candidature.
It's far from certain that the United States and Turkey will succeed. For one thing, heavy public U.S. pressure on West European governments often back-fires because EU officials do want to be perceived as bowing to U.S. demands. What's more, centuries-old history, with its evidence of a deep civilization gap, is clearly not on Turkey's side. And more recent history has amply demonstrated that Turkey's promises to improve its human rights record are seldom fulfilled.
The last evidence of that failing came in the year following the EU's signing of a customs-union accord with Ankara in 1995. Angered by Turkey's reneging on its pledges to implement Western human-rights criteria, the European Parliament six months ago cut off all customs-union funding to Turkey indefinitely, in effect making the accord a dead letter.
The customs union was meant to bring Turkey into closer association with the EU -- without granting it full membership. If that strategy did not work, ask some analysts, how after so many failed previous attempts can anything short of a miracle bring about early Turkish entry into the EU?