Prague, 17 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Despite an all-out effort by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the European Union made only limited progress at its Cardiff summit meeting this week in warming up its frosty relations with Turkey. The chief reason for its lack of success was, as usual, adamant resistance from member-state Greece, Turkey's long-time adversary.
EU-Turkey relations have been in a deep freeze since last December's summit in Luxembourg, when the EU excluded Ankara, a perennial aspirant for membership, from candidacy status while formally granting it to 10 Central and East European nations plus Cyprus. The EU leaders cited Turkey's poor human-rights record and its quarrels with Greece -- over territorial rights in the Aegean Sea as well as the status of divided Cyprus -- as reasons for leaving it off the list of candidates. Turkey immediately cut off all political dialogue with the EU and insisted it would continue to do so until the EU reversed the exclusion, which many Turks believe has more to do with the country's largely Muslim population than the EU admits.
Throughout Britain's six-month EU presidency, which ends in two weeks, Blair has sought a means of breaking the deadlock. In March, he hosted the EU's special European Conference summit -- a meeting designed especially to order to include Turkey -- but Ankara refused to attend. Later, he sent Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to Turkey to see if there was some way of changing the government's stance. The visit brought no immediate result. Finally, 36 hours before the Cardiff meeting, Blair had Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis to dinner in London to try soften Athens' position.
That gesture, too, was to little avail. Britain had hoped to have Turkey described as the EU's "12th applicant" in Cardiff's final communique. After a long night (June 15) of haggling, Greece vetoed that language. It also maintained its earlier veto over release of any the $280 million in funding due to Turkey under a customs-union agreement it signed with the EU three years ago.
Not even an early-morning (0130, June 16) telephone call from U.S. President Bill Clinton -- made at Blair's request -- could change Simitis' mind. The funds remained blocked, and the communique said only that the EU is now committed to "a strategy to prepare Turkey for membership (and) the strategy can be enriched over time, taking into account Turkey's own ideas."
Still, the Turkish government's initial reaction to the summit's decisions was not dismissive. Foreign Minister Ismail Cem told parliament yesterday that while Cardiff was no great success for Ankara, there were what he called "positive developments" at the meeting. Cem promised Turkey would respond to the goodwill it had perceived in some EU members. He said: "A few steps forward have been taken....Let's be positive to those who are positive (toward us)."
At a post-summit press conference, Blair also tried to put a positive gloss on Cardiff's handling of the Turks. He maintained that the communique had treated Turkey no differently than the EU treats other prospective members, saying: "The same rules and criteria that apply to anyone else apply to the (Turks) too." But Blair also admitted that, in his careful phrasing, "our Greek colleagues put forward their case very strongly, indeed." At another press briefing, Dutch Foreign Minster Hans van Mierlo put the matter more bluntly. He said, "In matters of substance, Greece blocked all points."
Simitis, of course, saw things differently. He told reporters that "nothing had changed (on Turkey at Cardiff) and there is no reason to change the Luxembourg decision." As for the call from Clinton, Simitis said he had told the president that there was no possibility of any change in Athens' stance toward Ankara. Then, according to Simitis, Clinton told him that Greece's position might create tension in the area. "I (then) told him," Simitis said, "that Turkey, not Greece, would be responsible for any tension in the area."
Whatever else the Clinton call failed to achieve, the publicity given to it surely gave a boost to the political fortunes of Simitis, who is currently trying to impose unpopular economic austerity on Greece to prepare for its joining the EU's coming single currency. Much of the Greek media yesterday was provoked to outrage over Clinton's intervention. Simitis said "No to the Leader of the World," headlined one paper (the financial daily "Imerisia"). At home at least, Simitis was suddenly a hero.