Prague, 19 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Foreign and Deputy Prime Minister Tansu Ciller was unusually bullish about Turkey's prospects for admission to the European Union when she convened a press conference in Ankara Monday.
"A new door has been opened," Ciller exulted, "Turkey has been put on the on the track for full EU membership for the first time."
With equal enthusiasm -- but far from the first time -- Ciller went on to pledge rapid improvement in Turkey's widely criticized human rights record, one of the chief reasons it has long been rejected for full EU membership. "We must launch new initiatives to promote democracy, freedom of thought and the fight against (police) torture," she said. "Now there is a big test awaiting Turkey," she added, saying that her country's "all-out efforts" at democratic reform have just begun.
Ciller's exuberance was in striking contrast to a series of hostile remarks about the EU she had made in recent months. She and other high Turkish officials had even several times publicly threatened a boycott of the planned Eastward expansion of NATO -- in which Turkey is a full member -- if the Union did not agree to reconsider its candidacy seriously. Turkey, granted associate status with the EU three decades ago, was turned down for full membership in 1989 and has since been unable to revive its candidacy despite repeated pleas.
What made the difference in Ciller's tone was an EU statement on Sunday that it "recognized (Turkey) as having a European future and (would judge it) on the same basis as other countries." The man who made the statement was Foreign Minister Hans van Mierlo of the Netherlands, which currently holds the Union's revolving presidency. He did so at the conclusion of a two-day "informal" meeting of the EU's 15 foreign ministers in the Dutch town of Apeldoorn, where the Union's difficulties with Turkey were high on the agenda.
Ironically, those difficulties first came into full public glare early last month when the blunt-spoken van Mierlo told a European Parliament Committee hearing that it "was time for us in Europe to be honest (about Turkey): There is a problem with a large Moslem state...an unspoken question (whether we want it in the EU)," the minister said. Even more ironically, Van Mierlo went on to say that personally he does not share the problem, but his own more tolerant view got little publicity.
A month later, led by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, European Christian Democrat leaders meeting in Brussels put the issue of Turkey's 63 million Moslems at the center of their publicly stated view that the country was "not a serious EU applicant." Their spokesman, Wilfred Maartens of Belgium, said pointedly that the EU was what he stressed was "a E-u-r-o-p-e-a-n project," in which Turkey had no place as full member. What analysts later called the EU's "dirty little secret" about Turkey was now out in the open: There was what was politely called a "civilization gap" between Turkey and Western Europe -- and less politely dubbed European "anti-Moslem bigotry."
To mollify Turkey -- and the United States, which is vigorously pushing EU membership for Ankara -- the Union's foreign ministers last weekend outdid one another in protesting their impartiality. France's Herve de Charette said: "We can only judge the membership of a country on objective criteria, and certainly not on religious or ethnic criteria." A senior British official said that "we don't believe in a higher (membership) hurdle for Turkey than for others." German's Klaus Kinkel said that "the EU wants Turkey to remain on the track to Europe and not be pushed into a siding."
But, as Kinkel immediately made clear, EU mollification does not necessarily mean EU membership for Turkey. The German Foreign Minister went on to say that "it is clear that Turkey does not now fulfill the conditions for membership," and specifically referred to the need for a better human rights record and better treatment of Turkey's ethnic Kurd minority. Germany, several analysts pointed out later, has two million residents of Turkish origin inside its borders, few of them bearing German nationality. To make Turkey an EU member would be to grant Germany's Turkish minority the same travel, work and other rights enjoyed by citizens of other EU members -- a political danger for any German government.
But Tansu Ciller did not allow any such political and cultural realities to lessen her joy at the EU's weekend statement. Perhaps for domestic political reasons -- Ciller is number two in a shaky, Islamic-led coalition government that she is due to take over in 16 months -- she insisted that Turkey's EU candidacy was now back on track.
Not even a statement yesterday by Ciller's Greek counterpart and long-time adversary Theodore Pangalos could shake her faith. Pangalos chided what he called the "hypocrisy" of some of his EU colleagues who, he said, "call in the Turkish foreign minister for photo opportunities and drafts of cooperation agreements, but deep down don't want" Turkey to join the Union. And if Ciller had van Mierlo's statement to back up her view, some analysts noted, Pangalos and Kinkel had history and political realities on their side.