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Turkey: New Government Faces Uphill Battle With EU

Relations between the European Union and Turkey have been strained in recent years as Ankara has expressed its frustration with the EU's refusal to include it among the front ranks of membership applicants. Our correspondent Jolyon Naegele -- who recently returned from a trip to Turkey -- takes a look at the current state of Turkish-EU relations.

Ankara/Prague, 17 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's hopes of improving its chances of becoming a candidate for membership in the European Union received another setback earlier this month at the semi-annual EU summit in the German city of Cologne.

The Cologne summit was preceded by an unusual exchange of letters between Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. In his letter, Ecevit pledged to work for better ties with Greece and to develop a constructive initiative to resolve the problems of Turkey's heavily Kurdish southeast -- while denying the existence of a "Kurdish problem."

Ecevit also pledged to legislate reforms as stipulated in the EU's Copenhagen criteria for EU candidate countries. He made no reference, however, to resolving the Cyprus issue.

Schroeder responded by saying that he welcomed Ecevit's suggestions and promised to work for a "positive outcome" to Turkey's ambitions for EU membership.

As at previous EU summits in Luxembourg, Cardiff and Vienna, Greece again blocked any move favoring a rapprochement with Turkey, despite advocacy by Germany, France and Britain for -- in Schroeder's words -- "making a sign that would bring Turkey closer to Europe." This time, Greece is reported to have found some support for its arguments from Sweden and Italy.

The Kosovo crisis shunted the Turkish question to one of the last items on the agenda in Cologne. With little time left before the EU summit was to end, Greece succeeded in getting a clause removed from the draft of the summit's conclusions. The offending clause said that, at the EU's next summit in December in Helsinki, "the European Council, in association with the other decisions taken on enlargement, will endeavor to take the necessary decisions to bring Turkey into the enlargement process as an accession candidate on an equal footing."

The Greek delegation argued that the EU should not commit itself to any decision in Helsinki and that the EU needs time to see whether Ecevit's new center-left/nationalist coalition government can implement its program of wide-ranging reforms.

The new government's program insists that Turkey has a contractual, historical and geographical right to become a full member of the EU. But the document also contains numerous concessions to long-standing EU demands, including a pledge "to eliminate the shortcomings of Turkish democracy, improve human rights and lift the obstacles in the path of freedom of expression."

It also promises to review "the duties, powers and responsibilities of the security forces, especially the police" and to "make legal arrangements to ensure that these forces provide an effective and unbiased security service respectful of human rights."

The government program also promises:

-- Judicial reform, including changes in the Constitution.

-- Modernization of the rights and obligations of prisoners.

-- A reduction of rampant inflation to a single-digit figure.

-- And updating of the customs law to bring it into harmony with EU customs laws and regulations.

The government program also pledges to promote efforts to resolve differences with Greece through dialogue, starting with the Aegean Sea, where Turkish and Greek territorial claims overlap.

Other factors favoring EU caution on Turkey at the Cologne summit included concern on human rights issues, including the ongoing trial in Turkey of Kurdish insurgent leader Abdullah Ocalan. The EU previously stated its opposition to capital punishment and is likely to freeze relations with Ankara if Ocalan is executed.

The Greek delegation was particularly concerned that failing to stand firm against Turkish membership could harm the ruling Socialist PASOK party's chances in last Sunday's elections to the European Parliament. As it turned out, PASOK lost one seat and came in second behind the opposition New Democracy.

General elections are due to be held in Greece in one year, making it questionable whether Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis -- at the next EU summit in December -- will be any more amenable to easing his country's opposition to Turkish membership in the EU.

Among the post-mortem analyses of the Cologne summit, one commentary in the Turkish Daily News noted "if Turkey had not lost precious time in the past few months with the parliamentary elections and had legislated some sweeping reforms, it would have been in a stronger position to push for its case in Cologne."

But Former Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz -- whose Motherland Party is the most junior member of Ecevit's new three-party coalition -- last week called for Turkey to adopt a new strategy regarding the European Union. In his words, "From now on, we must pursue a strategy which leaves out the goal of full EU membership."

Yilmaz, in the typically confrontational style that rankled diplomats in Ankara and governments throughout the EU during his tenure as government chief, says, "They are telling us to go away and we still insist, saying, 'Admit us.' If you do not recognize me, I will not recognize you either."

The Turkish co-chair of the Turkish-EU Commission, Bulent Akarcali, says the main source of problems between Brussels and Ankara is the EU's double standard, which he sums up as, "We have rights, you have obligations." He says one cannot speak of Turkey having a "chance" of being invited to join the EU.

"Chance exists when everyone is on an equal footing. Turkey is not on an equal footing. Turkey has been used, misused (eds: as a NATO ally) from 1950 up to the collapse of the Soviet regime, and since then Turkey has been thrown away just like a used piece of paper. This is the feeling that we have, but unfortunately this is also the reality."

Akarcali notes that Turkey is developing economically through its own means and says it has received no substantial contribution from the European Union since 1980. As a result, he says, Turkey is financing about a quarter of the EU's external commercial trade surplus. Akarcali accuses the EU of devoting too few bureaucrats in Brussels to Turkey. He says there is one senior and two junior bureaucrats assigned to Turkey, in contrast to what he says are about 100 officials devoted to membership for Poland, which has a population less than two-thirds the size of Turkey.

The EU's ambassador to Turkey, Karen Fogg, told RFE/RL in a recent interview in Ankara that the EU -- despite its rocky relationship with Turkey -- is trying to secure financial support to help the country move toward membership:

"It has to go through the decision-making process of the Union, which means through the European Parliament and the Council, to secure financing for Turkey using different means from those used in the past, where there has been the infamous Greek veto preventing Turkey receiving the money which was promised. We have to be quite open about that, money that was promised to complement the implementation of the customs union with Turkey. This Greek veto on money has been one of the very serious preoccupations of Turkey -- Turkish authorities and Turkish public opinion. It is seen as lack of seriousness by the European Union in its relations with Turkey."

Fogg says differences with Brussels have become more complicated as a result of the Ocalan affair and continuing tensions between Turkey and Greece.

Fogg says that outspoken statements by Turkish politicians -- while not affecting what she terms "Turkey's eventual membership" -- nevertheless do harm the country's image in Western Europe.

Ambassador Fogg says the public dialogue between Ankara and Brussels should be more constructive. She dismisses comments made by some older EU politicians who referred to the European Union as a Christian club, since it is a multi-cultural community. She notes that Islam is now the second-largest religion in Great Britain and France. But she says it is taking a long time to develop an understanding in Turkey of what the EU is all about due to what she says is Turkey's isolation:

"I find that knowledge of west European languages (in Turkey) is not very widespread. I find that linkages between chambers of commerce, municipalities, NGOs, is nothing like as developed as it is between, for instance, East European countries and Western Europe -- linkages which have developed in the last 10 years."

Ambassador Fogg notes that a positive development for the future of EU-Turkish relations is that the new president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, was an economic advisor in the late 1980's to Turkey's prime minister at the time, Turgut Ozal.

The director of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute, Seyfi Tashan, takes a more long-range view. He says that if the EU is to remain a defensive entity in economic and geopolitical terms without any global ambitions, then it will be very difficult to admit Turkey:

"They might wish to create this 'citadel Europe' concept, then Turkey has no place in it. But if Europe wishes to play a greater role in the world, not only economically but also politically, then Turkey is an unavoidable ally."

Tashan says Turkey's rate of development is such that in 15 years, as he puts it, "we will have licked our underdevelopment problem," which he notes is no longer a national problem but a regional problem. In his words, "The EU may not wish to have Turkey as a full member until then, but in 15 years' time, who knows what will happen in Europe itself?"