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Turkey: New Complications Ahead In Relationship With EU

Prague, 19 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Despite signs of a warming in their chilly relations, Turkey and the European Union (EU) appear headed for further bilateral political complications.

Turkish President Suleyman Demirel set the scene for that during his visit to Vienna this week. He gave a speech (Nov. 17) saying Turkey expects next month's EU summit in the Austrian capital to confirm Turkey's status as a fully-fledged candidate for EU membership. Demirel said such a move would dispel the "ambiguities" surrounding Turkey's position as an applicant country.

He was referring to the fact, painful to Turkey, that the EU has long declined to give Ankara official status as the twelfth candidate for EU membership, along with the 10 Central and East European countries plus Cyprus. Instead, the EU's Luxembourg summit a year ago spoke vaguely of Turkey's "eligibility" for membership -- a formula which Ankara rejected as discriminatory, and which led it to freeze relations with the EU.

A spark of warmth returned to the relationship early this month when the EU included Turkey in the progress reports it issued on all the candidates. Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem said Turkey's inclusion shows the way is now open for better relations. He brushed aside the report's criticism, particularly of Turkey's human rights record. Building on this basis, President Demirel has now increased the stakes, saying publicly that the Vienna summit (Dec. 11 and 12) should formalize the status of Turkey as a candidate country.

But an official in the EU's Council of Ministers in Brussels says this in very unlikely to happen. He told RFE/RL, on condition of anonymity, that long-standing Greek attitudes to Turkey are a major obstacle. He also said that overall, the EU's views on Turkey remain the same as in Luxembourg a year ago. In the new progress report, the EU refers frankly to Turkish rights abuses, such as the regular use of torture and extra-judicial executions. It also says there is evidence of rights abuses in the way Turkish authorities deal with the Kurdish insurrection. The report further sees Turkey's handling of the Cyprus situation as incompatible with international law.

The Vienna summit thus appears likely to face the task of finding a formula to encourage Turkey without materially improving its position -- a situation which will hardly please Ankara and may lead to new strains.

Behind the scenes, the Turkish mood is less optimistic than that reflected by Demirel. A senior Brussels-based Turkish diplomat told RFE/RL that realistically, Turkey does not count on a positive action at the Vienna summit. He dismissed EU efforts towards Turkey as mere "window dressing" without substance. "We need meat", (Eds: substance) he said, saying that even if Vienna did give Turkey a "title" as he put it, this would not be enough any more to patch up the damage. He also dismissed as "paltry" the EU's attempts to give Turkey financial support, noting Greece is anyway blocking a package intended for Turkey worth only about $175 million.

Further the diplomat, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said Turkey had been "taken aback" by the EU's criticisms in the progress report. He rejected them as "not justified", adding that even the section dealing with Turkey's economic preparedness was "contradictory". In all, he said the report had "darkened the picture". Asked about the positive tone of recent comments by German officials, particularly new Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, the diplomat said such comments seem to be heading in the right direction, but that Turkey now wants "actions, not words", and takes such utterances with a "grain of salt". Fischer had said that Europe's door must remain open to Turkey.

The Turkish diplomat raised another issue which he said could further cloud EU-Turkish relations -- namely the case of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Ocalan was arrested in Rome last week. But EU-member Italy is refusing to extradite him to Turkey while Turkey still has the death penalty. Turkey says there will be retaliation against Rome unless Ocalan is handed over. The Brussels diplomat said the ongoing row could easily spill over to the EU level.

In any event, representatives of the EU Troika will be in Ankara next Monday (Nov. 23) to discuss with Turkish officials the range of problems and perspectives. The troika consists of the past, present and incoming holders of the EU rotating presidency - in this case Britain, Austria and Germany. The meeting will be at director-general level.