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EU: Report Underscores Turkey's Progress, But Notes Much Work Still To Be Done

The European Commission today published the annual progress report for Turkey toward fulfilling the criteria for membership in the European Union. The report sets an encouraging tone but specifies many areas where Turkey still falls short of European norms.

Prague, 5 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey wins praise from the European Commission today for carrying out reforms on a wide front. But at the same time, the commission says Turkey still has much work to do before it is ready for membership in the European Union.

The comments are contained in the commission's annual report on Ankara's progress toward meeting the EU's entry requirements, which was released today in Brussels.

This year's report is particularly significant because the European Commission has promised to consider setting a date for opening formal accession talks with Ankara if it meets the EU's conditions by the end of 2004.

The report says that, in the past year, Turkey has shown "great determination" in accelerating the pace of far-reaching political and legal reforms as recommended by the EU. But it emphasizes that Turkey still has a long way to go, particularly in terms of actually implementing on the ground the reforms agreed to on paper. At present, the EU says implementation is -- in its words -- "slow and uneven," and in some cases judicial and executive bodies have placed restrictions on the reforms, hindering parliament's original intentions.

On key issues like ending the division of the island of Cyprus, the report notes with approval that the Turkish government has several times confirmed its support for efforts to find a comprehensive settlement to that problem.

Cyprus has been split into ethnic Greek and Turkish zones since Ankara's troops invaded the north in 1974 following a coup backed by Athens. Cyprus itself is due to join the EU on 1 May, but the EU hopes to see the island reunited before May.

Officials in Brussels have said Turkey needs to do more to help resolve the situation if it is to have a real chance of opening accession negotiations anytime soon. Turkish officials are reported to be angry at this link, but EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen today responded to that.

"First of all, I do not understand the Turkish reaction because this is a factual statement and everybody in Europe knows it. Nobody in Europe could imagine a situation where we would start negotiations with Turkey when the conflict in Cyprus is not resolved. It's not a condition, and I've told the Turkish foreign minister in a telephone conversation [that] we're not creating new conditions, but we're simply stating the fact that this could become an obstacle, as an incentive to Turkey to strengthen efforts," Verheugen said.

Verheugen went on to say that once Cyprus is a member, it has full rights to block Turkish accession, hence it is in Turkey's own interests to resolve the problem.

The EU report continues to note that relations between Turkey and its long-time regional rival Greece "continue to evolve positively."

On other foreign policy issues, the commission notes that Turkey has improved its relations with Iran and Syria, is active in the Middle East peace process and is also engaged in Black Sea regional cooperation. In addition, it has played a "very important role in stability and security" in the Balkans and the Caucasus.

On the issue of human, civil, and political rights, the EU report notes that reforms carried through this year strengthen the fight against torture, broaden the scope of fundamental freedoms and improve cultural rights.

However, it points to many gaps in the actual implementation of these reforms.

On torture, the report says that although the government has committed itself to zero tolerance, and although there have been some concrete improvements, "the situation is uneven and torture cases persist."

It also cites continuing violations of freedom of expression and limitations on freedom of the press. On broadcasting, reforms permitting radio and television broadcasts in languages other than Turkish have not yet led to any concrete result.

Also, significant limitations remain on freedom of association. In religion, a ban remains on the training of clergy for religious minorities.

Observers say these various deficiencies have been felt in particular by the big Kurdish minority in southeast Turkey, which is recovering from a decades-long war between the military and Kurdish rebels that cost more than 30,000 lives.

The EU report notes, however, that the lifting of the state of emergency in the two mainly Kurdish provinces of Diyarbakir and Sirnak after 15 years has improved general conditions in the area, although difficulties remain.

As to other minorities, they have been subjected to certain discriminatory practices. For instance, Roma communities complain of social exclusion, Greek schools face restrictions on recruiting teachers, and the Syrian minority is not allowed its own schools.

The director of Bilkent University's Foreign Policy Institute, Seyfi Tashan, says he believes Turkey is being held to a higher standard than the other European candidates for EU membership. He says none of the candidates -- even those who will be admitted next year -- has entirely met EU standards. He says the EU is not ready to give Turkey a date for starting talks.

"They will [therefore] certainly put in a lot of criticism into their report. Actually, Turkey from the legal point of view has met a large section of the Copenhagen criteria. There are some few implementation criteria that we have to deal with," Tashan said.

On the issue of curbing the excessive influence of the military on Turkish civil life, the report says senior officers are still expressing opinions on political, social, and foreign policy matters. It says changes to the National Security Council could narrow the gap with European norms, but that these changes must be implemented.

Overall, Mike Emerson, senior analyst with the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, thinks Turkey's performance is "pretty impressive."

"If Turkey perceives from the EU a credible conditional offer from the EU for accession sometime down the road, then it will greatly help the effective implementation of all these important political measures it has already taken," Emerson said.

(RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent, Ahto Lobjakas, contributed to this report.)