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EU: Turkey Renews Efforts To Gain Membership

In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, and in the lead-up to the European Union's key Helsinki summit, Turkey is again increasing its efforts to gain formal recognition of its application to join the EU. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke examines what's at stake.

Prague, 2 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey is once again making a play to gain a place in the queue to join the European Union.

Foreign Minister Ismail Cem laid down his card by saying during a visit to London that Turkey feels "tired" and "humiliated" by its long-standing failure to gain formal recognition as a candidate for membership. In a press interview published today (Financial Times), Cem said Turkey may give up its attempts to gain a candidacy if things go "wrong" at the European Union's December summit in Helsinki.

His rather petulant comments are clearly a tactic to pressure the Helsinki summit into admitting Turkey to a crowded list of EU hopefuls. Already waiting on that list are the 10 Central and East European countries, plus Cyprus and Malta. Certainly this latest attempt comes at a tragic but opportune moment, when sympathy in Europe is running high for Turkey in the aftermath of the devastating August 17 earthquake.

Italy's foreign minister, Lamberto Dini, this week is quoted (Aug. 31, in Il Sole 24 Ore) as saying Turkey's "right" to a place must be recognized at Helsinki. Dini noted what he called Turkey's "recent tragedies" and the risks to its economy.

In Brussels, Turkey also gained an important sign of support from the incoming EU commissioner for enlargement issues, Guenther Verheugen. During a confirmation hearing yesterday, he said Helsinki should deal with the Turkey issue, and he indicated Ankara has his support. But at the same time, Verheugen noted that Turkey is far from meeting the EU entry criteria, in that it still has major shortcomings in terms of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and the protection of minorities, including the Kurds.

The European Union has long held Turkey at arm's length because of such deficiencies. On top of that, there is the refusal of EU member Greece, Turkey's Aegean rival, to accept the idea of Turkish membership, as well as the question of the division of Cyprus. In addition, some would say there is an invisible barrier, namely the reluctance of some on the continent to consider Muslim Turkey as really a part of Europe. Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl was frank in this regard, saying some years ago that, in his opinion, Europe ends at Romania and Bulgaria, and that's that.

Beyond this philosophical issue, which usually remains unspoken, is the practical consideration. Sprawling Turkey, with all its economic and social problems, would be a huge mouthful for the EU to swallow any time in the next half-century. Absorbing the Central and East Europeans is proving a difficult enough task.

Despite all this, the spokesman for the current, Finnish presidency of the EU, Reijo Kemppinen, told RFE/RL today:

"Turkey will be undoubtedly one of the key issues to be discussed in the context of enlargement in the Helsinki European Council (summit), and during that discussion the question of the Turkish application will undoubtedly arise."

Kemppinen says that the Finnish presidency is very much in favor of increasing cooperation with Turkey and bettering the relations between Ankara and Brussels. But at the same time, Kemppinen diplomatically maneuvers around the issue of Turkey's status with regard to the union:

"What kind of words we should use when talking about Turkey's application to become a member of the European Union, that's not something we would like to play with. For us it's much more important to talk about the substance of things, than to try to figure out what exact level we should give to Turkey's application."

The spokesman further cautions that guessing at what kind of wording should be used would not be "fruitful" for relations between Ankara and Brussels. All of that appears to be a way of saying that the word "candidate" is not going to be easy to apply to Turkey at Helsinki.

Some clues to the EU members' thinking may emerge this weekend (Sept. 5/6), when foreign ministers of the 15 member countries gather in the northern Finnish town of Saariselka in Lapland. The ministers are expected to discuss Turkey on Sunday (Sept. 6) in the context of enlargement, and also specifically in terms of aid following the earthquake. French President Jacques Chirac has said he hopes the Lapland meeting will agree on significant and generous aid to Turkey.

Greece has already indicated it will end its long opposition to a package that would make available some $157 million in regional aid to Turkey, as well as a European Investment Bank loan of some $630 million. Athens, however, still opposes the granting of another aid package worth almost $400 million.