The European Commission may have given a green light to Turkey Wednesday—and most people expect European Union leaders to do much the same in December—but the road ahead could be long and very bumpy, analysts say.
The EU executive, whose views will form the basis for a decision at a mid-December European Union summit, voiced hope that the vast Muslim country could become a bridge between the Christian West and the Orient.
But amid widespread concerns—not least among ordinary Europeans—about what Turkey’s EU entry would mean for the already-strained EU, no-one is holding their breath for the EU to lay out the red carpet.
“The negotiations will be tortuous and lengthy. Devils are in the detail,” said British historian Norman Stone, a professor at Ankara’s Bilkent University, writing the the Wall Street Journal Europe.
The EU executive itself, while hoping that talks can start early next year, admits that it may be “well into the next decade” before Turkey can actually be admitted. “The EU will evolve over this period and Turkey should change even more radically,” it said in a study appended to its long-awaited report.
The report, while saying talks should start, set a series of strict conditions and a warning that the EU should be able to suspend or even stop the negotiations “in the case of a serious and persistent breach” of key EU standards.
Few in Brussels are willing to speculate about what could constitute such breaches. But the Turkish daily Milliyet on Wednesday listed “disaster scenarios” that could scuttle Turkey’s bid during the negotiation process.
They included the re-arrest of Kurdish ex-lawmaker Leyla Zana, recently freed after a decade in jail; the army launching a major operation against Kurds in northern Iraq, or “radical Islamist groups creating havoc in Turkey.”
But perhaps the biggest element of doubt stems perhaps from the sheer length of time the negotiations are expected to last: Turkey’s current leaders can make commitments, but only for as long as they are in office.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan admitted as much when he visited Brussels last month to defuse a last-minute crisis over plans to criminalize adultery.
He gave assurances to EU enlargement chief Guenter Verheugen, but conceded: “I can only guarantee what I will do during the term of my government . . . I can’t say what others after me will do.”
Before the talks can begin of course comes the December 17 summit, when EU leaders will pore over the Commission’s recommendations. Most, apart notably from Austria and Cyprus, are expected to more or less endorse it, experts say.
“They may well have an argument between now and the summit about over exactly how long before they open negotations (or) whether there’s any more conditions,” said Kirsty Hughes of the London School of Economics.
But “the probability must still be that you’ll get a ‘yes’ in December,” she added.
When exactly the talks start is also open to discussion—Verheugen says “early next year,” while experts say France may try to delay it for domestic political reasons to do with its referendum on the EU constitution.
Another French cloud stems from President Jacques Chirac’s call for a referendum, at some point in the future, on Turkey’s EU bid. And this despite a recent poll showing 56 percent of French people against the plans.
In Germany,—whose leader Gerhard Schroeder is for Turkey’s bid, like Chirac—there is even less enthusiasm, with 57 percent against and 35 percent in favour. Other polls have showed similiar trends.
Hughes pointed out that this fits into an EU tradition of leaders pressing ahead with projects despite public skepticism—including the EU’s “big bang” expansion in May this year from 15 to 25 countries.
Above all the EU’s Turkey decision seems likely to fuel a growing debate about exactly what the EU is for, half a century after its creation.
“It will tell us as much about us as about ourselves as Europeans in the 21st century as it will tell us about Turkey,” said Liberal Democrat Euro-MP Graham Watson.
Stephen Castle and Pelin Turgut, Independent (London), Oct. 7
Rarely has the European Commission taken such an important step, and rarely has such a key debate been so one-sided. In more than four hours of discussions in a drab Brussels office block, just one of the 30 European Commissioners stood out against the start of membership talks with Turkey—a move likely to change the EU irrevocably.
With characteristic bluntness Frits Bolkestein, the outspoken Dutch Commissioner, cited a litany of human rights failings including torture, use of excessive force, lack of religious freedom and failure to protect women’s rights. But, as one supporter put it, Mr Bolkestein was “the only one with any balls” and other sceptics declared themselves satisfied with concessions. By 1pm the European Commission president, Romano Prodi, had won overwhelming backing for one of the boldest moves ever envisaged by the EU.
Yesterday’s formal recommendation urges EU leaders to begin accession negotiations with a mainly Muslim nation of 70 million people, many of whom live in poverty on the Asian landmass. Strict conditions have been placed on Ankara to allay fears in France, Germany and Austria, and the talks will take at least a decade. But, amid mounting fears of a clash of civilisations after 11 September, a political judgement was made that the dangers of rejecting Turkey’s 40-year-old European aspirations exceed the huge challenges of absorbing it.
Born from the ashes of the Second World War, the EU has already assumed the legacy of the Cold War by admitting eight ex-Communist states. Now it faces the task of averting a bigger global conflict still.
Two men have helped shape yesterday’s deal, which still needs to be agreed by the EU’s heads of government in December. The first is the Turkish premier, Recep Tayyip Erdogan who leads the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party and who has been in power since 2002.
Once imprisoned for reciting an Islamic poem, Mr Erdogan was originally viewed with some suspicion in Brussels, but EU officials now accept that Ankara only really embarked on reform when he came to power. As one official put it, there has been “a fantastic, revolutionary, change in Turkey over two years”.
The other main protagonist is the EU’s enlargement Commissioner, Günther Verheugen, a former centre-left minister and committed supporter of Ankara’s EU membership bid. It was up to him to wring sufficient change out of Turkey, to convince sceptical Europeans that Ankara can match EU human rights standards and place enough conditions on talks to reassure European public opinion that membership will not be a political fix.
At the same time he needed to make clear to Ankara that it can attain the prize that has eluded it for four decades.
When Mr Verheugen swept through Turkey last month on a fact-finding trip, an entire country held its breath. Traders on the Istanbul stock exchange hung on his every word. An army of cameramen stalked him. In Diyarbakir, regional capital of the mainly Kurdish southeast, he was greeted by the sight of a city festooned with billboards proclaiming “Citizen Verheugen! Welcome to Greater Europe!”.
He even flew to the tiny mountain hamlet of Tuzla, a remote enclave of some 30 squat huts. Sipping tea with a group of villagers, he asked them whether they wanted to join Europe. “Absolutely!” they chorused, vehemently. “We want a better life”. Mr Verheugen appeared taken aback by the strength of their response. “I feel under pressure,” he joked. “You have such high expectations!”
Commission documents issued yesterday do not gloss over Turkey’s weaknesses. The country’s gross domestic product per head is 27 per cent of the EU average (including the new, mainly ex-Communist countries), and the employment rate of those of working age is just 45.5 per cent. Worse, “numerous cases of ill-treatment including torture continue to occur”. To attain the EU’s miniumum human rights standards (the “Copenhagen criteria”) further work needs to be done on these areas as well as “freedom of expression, freedom of religion, women’s rights, trade union rights and minority rights”.
It adds, however, that torture is no longer systematic and the government’s policy toward it is one of “zero tolerance”. Because EU membership negotiations will stretch until at least 2015, the Commission argues that such practices can be eliminated by the time Turkey joins.
With a proper legal framework now almost completely in place, the country “sufficiently fulfils the political criteria” to justify the opening of talks.
Mr Verheugen delivered several concessions to concerns in France, Germany and Austria. The negotiations, say yesterday’s recommendation, should be “an open-ended process whose outcome cannot be guaranteed beforehand”. In other words Turkey might never make it. Were Ankara to renege on human rights obligations or lapse back into authoritarianism, the EU could pull an “emergency brake” and suspend talks.
In addition, Mr Verheugen added a controversial new clause to ease fears of a new wave of immigration sweeping into the EU. His recommendation says that a “permanent safeguard clause can be considered”, suggesting that EU countries should be able to block Turkish immigration if there is a sudden influx. The idea is vague and such a permanent arrangement would be open to legal challenge since it would breach the fundamental EU principle of free movement of labour.
But it might just help get the idea of starting membership talks through its next, big hurdle: EU member- states.
Heads of government meet in December, under pressure after the recommendation to set a date for membership talks to start. Any one country can veto or delay negotiations. In France where the ruling centre-right party is split on Turkish accession despite support from the president, Jacques Chirac, some want to delay the start of talks with Turkey until after a referendum on the EU constitution, because they fear the two issues will become intertwined.
But Mr Verheugen’s “safeguard clause” could prove a big help in France. Though public opinion is opposed to Turkish membership, the fear of immigration is cited as the biggest factor. If that can be removed from the equation, public concern may subside.
Opposition remains strong and German critics yesterday called for a special partnership with Turkey, rather than membership. Pointing to the projections of Turkey’s growing population, the Belgian MEP Philip Claeys MEP argued: “The largest member-state of the EU will not even be a European country”.
But Mr Verheugen was eloquent on the risks of stalling Turkey’s bid. Membership negotiations are, he said, the “only guarantee” that Ankara will continue its move away from an authoritarian past towards Europe’s democratic, pluralistic and liberal values.
Without talks there is a “clear risk” that reform in Turkey would grind to a halt, said Mr Verheugen, adding: “We need the reform process in order to see Turkey firmly anchored into the western world”. In other words, in the aftermath of 11 September, Europe’s most senior politicians believe they have no alternative but to try to embrace their Turkish neighbour.
For more than 40 years Ankara has been knocking at Europe’s door but the actions of Osama bin Laden may have given it the key.