For Ankara, all roads lead to Paris

For Ankara, all roads lead to Paris
France remains the only major obstacle to Turkey receiving a date for EU
accession negotiations

By Burak Bekdil

Kathimerini English Edition 4th May 2004

It was not a coincidence that British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote
an article backing Turkey’s membership of the European Union in Le
Monde. With about half a year to go for the historic decision on
whether to give Turkey a date to start formal membership talks, France
remains the only single major obstacle.

Mr Blair argues that allowing Turkey to join the EU would help to
bridge the gap between Europe and the Islamic world. According to Mr
Blair, `Turkey will add a new dimension to the Union.’ The rhetoric
may or may not appeal to the French. But President Jacques Chirac
looks as though he is in deep doubt.

In his first press conference on Europe in six years, the French
leader said even if Turkey won a date to open membership negotiations,
it would take 10to 15 years for it to join the bloc. According to
optimists, Mr Chirac’s statement was a hidden reference to the
growing possibility of a date, which would be followed by a long
period of tough talks. According to pessimists, however, the language
reflected a deep suspicion in Paris of the idea of Turkish
membership. Both of the contrary propositions may be right.

It is true that Mr Chirac had to talk cautiously ahead of European
Parliament elections and in view of a French public still hostile to
the idea of 70 million Turks – or, rather, 80 million by the time
Turkey joins’ in the Union. A recent opinion poll showed that 70
percent of the French public oppose Turkish membership.

Men in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s closest circle are
optimistic about a change in the French language and policy after the
European elections. They recall equally hostile German thinking a
couple of years earlier and the present `spring-like mood’ in Berlin.

All the same, skeptics warn, everything may not actually be coming up
roses with Germany. What if the Germans are ostensibly supporting
Turkish membership, knowing that the French barrier will always be
there? That way, the Germans could be hoping to make political gains
from a large Turkish community at no real cost.

According to TAM, a Turkish studies center in Essen, Germany, the
number of Turks living in the EU will reach 4.9 million by 2007,
larger than the population of eight member states put together. Last
year, EU Turks contributed 70.2 billion euros to the bloc’s GDP – a
figure 10 times larger than the GDP of Estonia and eight times larger
than that of Latvia. A microcosm of Turkey already exists in the heart
of the EU!

But that’s hardly any relief to Mr Erdogan. Last week, his government
sent to Parliament a package of constitutional amendments designed to
persuade the EU to open the entry talks which he desperately
wants. The measures include enshrining gender equality, removing
military representatives from the board which supervises higher
education and scrapping state security courts, which try political and
security-linked crimes. They would also remove residual references to
the death penalty, which Turkey has abolished in line with EU

Turkey would also allow international agreements to take precedence
over domestic law when they came into conflict. In a further bid to
assert civilian control over the armed forces, Parliament would in
future have full controlover the military budget.

But all the reform effort in Ankara is a one-way street. If reforms
fail, Turkey will be denied access to talks. If they succeed, however,
they may not guarantee a date for Turkey. Hence, Mr Erdogan must not
only satisfy suspicious minds in Brussels but also win hearts in
several EU capitals.

The trouble is that EU leaders and public opinion still do not know
what to do about the Turks. For most of them, it’s best to keep Turkey
at adistance, though not too far. Some, like Mr Blair, argue that
Turkish membership would bring in strategic benefits. Others think
that 80 million Turks in the EU could only mean trouble.

But fractured EU thinking may find some common ground by
December. Almost all agree that denying Turkey a date will not benefit
anyone in Turkey or in the EU. It would mean disaster for Turkey’s
reformist government, a blow to transatlantic plans for the Greater
Middle East Initiative, and the countrymay drift into new unknowns.

Besides, a date, technically speaking, does not necessarily guarantee
eventual membership – although it has done so up to now. More
strategically, EU advocates for a date privately think it could work
as a catalyst to sort out other Turkey-related disputes i.e. the
Aegean, Armenian genocide claims, et cetera.

A no-date formula, on the other hand, will strengthen nationalist
elements in Turkey and naturally push Ankara into a much less
compromising position when it negotiates disputes with its neighbors.

All in all, Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, has a
point when he says it’s time `the EU leaders should stop saying
different things to the Turks and among themselves.’