The European Union has told Turkey that, as a candidate for union membership, it must seriously mend its democracy and clean up its human rights record. The demands have come as something of a shock for the Turkish government and threaten to sour Ankara's long-standing European dream. RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports.
Brussels, 3 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- When the EU decided to make Turkey a candidate for membership at the Helsinki summit last December, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit hailed the decision as a historic step for both the EU and Turkey.
Turkey had worked hard to get the invitation and had seen its bids turned down repeatedly in the '80s and '90s, and Turkish joy in December was understandable.
Yet it now seems that in all the euphoria, Turkey may have forgotten that candidate status brings with it obligations as well as privileges. Above all, candidate countries must work to meet the political and economic standards that are called the Copenhagen criteria.
Economically, Turkey would have relatively few problems meeting the goals. Politically, it is without doubt the weakest candidate, something that is equally well known in Brussels and Ankara.
When EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen visited Turkey two weeks ago, he reportedly brought with him a list of recommendations for far-reaching political reform. According to the well-regarded Beirut daily "Al Mustaqbal," the demands came as a "shock" to the Turkish government. The paper reports that some government ministers openly questioned whether deference to the EU's wishes is the right course of action for Turkey.
Marius Vahl, a researcher at the Brussels-based Center for European Policy studies, says Verheugen's visit brought to a head a debate that has been simmering in Turkey since the Helsinki summit.
"There seems to be a struggle within Turkey among these different elements, [or] people -- you can call them modernizers, Westerners, and the old guard. The fact that the Turkish Security Council has just started to discuss issues like human rights and the Kurdish question in a relatively public manner is in a way a step [in the right direction]. But if you look at the issues that Verheugen lists -- those that are mentioned in press reports -- they are very, very fundamental issues that are not resolved and not comparable to what you have in other enlargement candidates."
The long list of EU demands seriously questions the very way the Turkish state functions. Turkey is urged to abolish or reorganize its military-dominated National Security Council, which effectively controls the civilian government. The EU also wants Turkey to respect the rights of its Kurdish minority, and to allow Kurdish-language media broadcasts.
The document delivered by Verheugen calls for an end to the banning of political parties, and suggests changes to the electoral law. It says Turkey needs to radically reform its state security courts system, and abolish the death penalty. The document also urges Turkey to guarantee full freedom of expression, noting that 46 journalists remain behind bars.
If it is to stay on the path to accession, Turkey will have to move fast on the core demands. The European Commission, the EU's executive body, last week proposed the signing of an Accession Partnership with Turkey that would put it on equal footing with other candidates. The agreement is signed with all candidate countries to provide a legal framework for the progress towards eventual entry into the union.
The commission will present a draft agreement to EU member governments in early November. Therefore, Marius Vahl says, this autumn will be a crucial period for Turkey's European ambitions. He says many member states still have serious qualms about the decision to make Turkey a candidate and will no doubt take the opportunity to voice their concerns.
"Before Helsinki, there were several member states -- Sweden quite vocally among them, but also Germany -- who were quite skeptical about [Turkish candidacy]. Also, Germany recently refused to sell tanks to its ally Turkey because of human rights issues. So, [the Accession Partnership] would probably be used rhetorically to try to get [concessions] and to get Turkey to do something, but it seems as if [EU member states] have fundamentally decided to proceed with it."
Besides worries about the human rights situation, more practical concerns may surface in some member states before November. Earlier this week, Italy discovered 418 illegal immigrants on a ship that had allegedly set sail from a Turkish port. The Italian Foreign Ministry summoned the Turkish ambassador in Rome to lodge a formal complaint.