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EU: Hard To Calculate Turkey's Chances Of Joining Anytime Soon

Whatever their chagrin in private, Turkish leaders are expressing optimism about the prospects for eventual membership in the European Union. That's despite the European Commission's progress report, which says Turkey is not yet ready to open membership negotiations. But Turkey's real chances of joining the EU anytime soon remain hard to calculate.

Prague, 10 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- What are the real reasons Turkey is finding it so difficult to make decisive progress toward membership in the European Union?

The European Commission's annual progress report just issued in Brussels offers the evident, up-front explanation, namely, that Turkey still fails to meet the EU's political criteria, especially in the area of human rights.

The report praises Turkey's reform steps so far, including the abolition of the death penalty and legislation giving more cultural rights to Kurds. But it cites continuing restrictions on freedom of expression, on freedom of religion, and on freedom of association and peaceful assembly.

And it offers no target date for an opening of formal membership negotiations. Overall, the tone of the report appears to offer little expectation for a negotiating date anytime soon.

However, European Commission President Romano Prodi went out of his way yesterday to emphasize that there would be no artificial delays. He said in Brussels, "What is done is not yet enough for meeting the Copenhagen criteria, but we shall work hand in hand with the Turkish government to go on with this process in order to make this event possible in the future."

In Ankara, Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz put the best face on things, saying Turkey still hopes a date for talks will be set at the EU's Copenhagen summit in December. He also said Turkey remains determined to achieve EU membership.

Resat Arim, a board member at Turkey's Bilkent University's Foreign Policy Institute, emphasized the importance Turkey attaches to the naming of a date in Copenhagen. Reflecting similar remarks by Turkish Foreign Minister Sukru Sina Gurel, Arim said, "If there is no date for commencement of negotiations with Turkey in December, of course relations [with the European Union] will probably suffer."

Arim recalled that Ankara froze political contacts with the EU in 1997 over what was perceived as a similar snub.

Looking beyond the reasons stated by the European Commission, there are other factors in play as to why naming a date now would be considered undesirable.

Peter Zervakis of Bonn University's ZEI think tank explained, "The first thing is, we have to wait until the result of the parliamentary elections [on 3 November] to see whether Turkey is going to get a stable, democratic government with the objective of continuing the orientation process towards Europe or whether the nationalists or the classical Ataturk national independence forces will gain power."

As to the reforms Turkey has carried out, Zervakis sees the country as only at the very start of the process, and he said these reforms exist so far only on paper. Until there is actual implementation of the reforms, the European Commission cannot proceed to the next stage of the accession process, namely, monitoring the way these new rules are observed in practice.

But some analysts say there are considerations further in the background of the Turkish application that are not being talked about.

Phillipe Moreau de Farge of the French Institute of International Relations in Paris said that when the EU takes in a new member, it takes in that country's whole range of problems and becomes responsible for those problems. "To be clearer, if Turkey joins the European Union, it means two things. First, the European Union will be no longer a European structure. It will be a Euro-Middle East structure," Moreau de Farge said.

Having Middle Eastern borders would mean a major change in the EU's geopolitical situation. Second, he said, the EU takes on a new member's problems. If Turkey were to join the EU, "the Kurdish problem will become a European problem."

Moreau de Farge said he believes the European Union "is not ready to fulfill that kind of geopolitical obligation."

In addition to geopolitical considerations is the philosophical question of whether Turkey belongs to Europe at all. This question, which raises the issue of a Christian-Muslim divide, is rarely addressed directly by politicians in Western Europe.

The conservative challenger for the German chancellorship in last month's elections, Edmund Stoiber, was one public figure who had the courage to say that in his view, Turkey does not belong in Europe. EU leaders have repeatedly said the fact that Turkey is a Muslim country has no bearing whatsoever on its candidacy.

But given the immense size of Turkey, with its 70 million people and its dramatic differences in lifestyle from the rest of Europe, there is a shade of doubt in the European popular mind about Turkey's suitability. It's difficult, however, to determine exactly how influential, or appropriate, this thinking is.