Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2000, Pages 13,82

Talking Turkey

Conditions Attached to Turkey’s EU Breakthrough Present Hard Political, Legal and Economic Choices

By Jon Gorvett

“Victory in Europe!” was the banner headline in mid-December in one of Turkey’s leading national dailies, a slogan more reminiscent of a soccer triumph than a major lurch forward in the country’s long march to the West. Yet a major move it was, as the European Union summit in Helsinki decided to give Turkey candidate status for membership.

The move had followed a fairly unprecedented amount of lobbying, both by the Turkish and U.S. governments, plus a considerable amount of arm-twisting by assorted Euro heads. There had, after all, been quite an amount of lost face to be recovered, as the previous December 1997 Luxembourg EU summit had excluded Turkey from the next wave of expansion, leading to Ankara breaking off all official links with Brussels.

The eventual deal that was struck was something of a triumph in the way in which it seemed to be saying “yes” to everyone. The big sticking points were, as always, Greece and Greek Cyprus, with the Cypriots pressing their own application for EU membership. The summit ruled that this could go ahead whether or not a solution had been found to the Cyprus problem—much to the Turks’ distress (and particularly the distress of the Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash), but much to the Greek Cypriots’ delight. At the same time, Greece was also pacified by the inclusion in the EU’s acceptance of the Turkish candidacy of a string of clauses requiring of the Turks both political and economic progress before Ankara could even enter into accession talks.

In fact, the initial Turkish response to the heavily conditioned offer of candidacy status with no date for accession to start sounded pretty dismissive. So much so that the EU dispatched one of its principal chiefs, Javier Solana, to Ankara to “explain” the decision to Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit. Despite rumors that Ecevit might reject the offer, he eventually agreed and journeyed himself to Helsinki to accept the deal.

Thus “Victory in Europe.” However, it wasn’t too long before the euphoria began to wear off. EU membership may have been the dream of successive Turkish administrations—indeed, may even be the final triumph of the Republic’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, and his drive to Europeanize the country—but, people began to wonder, what did it actually mean?

“No more kukorec” was the first “revelation.” This roadside snack of liver and intestines would stand no chance versus a team of European health inspectors, cried the press, and neither would much else in the way of traditional Turkish dishes. In some ways, perhaps, this represented a refreshing start to Turkey’s EU career, being reminiscent of the kind of “Save the British sausage/French stick/German wurst” campaign that preoccupies much of the rest of the Union; to thunder about food products seemed further indication of a fundamental normalization in Turkey-EU relations.

Yet there were also more serious concerns. In foreign policy, the EU had made a point of saying that Turkey would have to come to some kind of arrangement with Greece over the Aegean. Athens and Ankara have been locked in a cold war over the status of hundreds of tiny islets in that sea and the extent of each other’s territorial waters and air space. Greece has long argued that all such disputes should be taken to the International Court at The Hague.

Turkey prefers to negotiate away from this. Under the Helsinki agreement, however, if the parties to the dispute are unable to reach a deal within two years, the EU may decide to refer the whole issue to the Court anyway.

Secondly, the Helsinki deal prominently mentions political improvements in Turkey itself. High on the list is the status of the country’s minorities. Officially, these are only the tiny Greek and Armenian communities.

One of the great unspoken truths of modern Turkey, however, is that half of the country is populated by ethnic minorities, the largest of these being the Kurds. Although the 15-year war between the Turkish army and the guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) entered what looked to be a final phase last year, with the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and the military defeat of much of the guerrilla force in southeast Turkey, the fundamental issue of Kurdish rights, which has only a tangential relation to Ocalan and the PKK, is unlikely ever to go away.

The Kurdish Issue

In this regard, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, one of the leading figures in Turkey’s successful EU strategy and in Turkey’s recent rapprochement with Greece, spoke out a few days after Helsinki to say that he thought there was nothing wrong with the country’s Kurds broadcasting in their own language. Currently, although there are several Kurdish-language publications, Kurdish, the first language of several million of the country’s citizens, is banned from Turkish TV and radio, and is not taught in schools.

A short while later, Mesut Yilmaz, the leader of the coalition government’s third party, Motherland, also spoke in Diyarbakir, the capital of the country’s largely Kurdish southeast, and made similar noises. At the same time, President Suleiman Demirel said that Turkey should wait for the European Court to rule on the death sentence passed by a Turkish court on Abdullah Ocalan before deciding whether or not to carry out the execution. Since the European Court is likely to find the Turkish court procedure used to try Ocalan contrary to European law, this is something of a recognition that Turkey may not hang the PKK leader.

The path here is not likely to be a smooth one. The second-largest party in the coalition, the rightist National Action Party, reacted negatively to both Cem and Yilmaz, and wants Ocalan hanged as quickly as possible. In this, they represent the view of a large number of Turks, and find themselves also in agreement with the pro-Islamist opposition party, Virtue.

Similarly, the nationalists have been raising fears of the EU’s undoubted economic muscle forcing Turkey into accepting the destruction of many of its small-scale businesses. The 1995 Customs Union agreement signed between Ankara and Brussels had the immediate effect of making many European imports cheaper than Turkish-made equivalents. Meanwhile, in an effort to modernize plant and commercial facilities in order to compete more effectively, many larger Turkish businesses imported large quantities of European-manufactured machinery—further swinging the balance of trade against Turkey. The fear is that the closer the country gets to Europe, the more it is going to be out-competed by its northern neighbors, and flooded with European goods.

However, this scenario is still some way off. Efforts to invent a time-line for accession in the absence of an official one became quite an industry in the latter half of December. Ecevit remarked on how membership was “closer than anyone thinks” immediately after Helsinki, the figure of two years being mentioned.

Later, this was revised to three or four years, while columnists took the generally more long-term view of 10 to 20 years. Yet Ecevit was highly optimistic when it came to human rights, saying that “in three months” such problems would be solved if parliament continued to pass legislation at the rate that it was currently going.

Few, if anyone, would agree with him on this, however much they may wish his comments to come true. Convincing the EU that sufficient progress has been made will require more than just legislative changes.

Actually enforcing these on Turkey’s giant security and state apparatus will be an immense task. This bureaucracy is unaccustomed to being inspected, to being held accountable, and to sharing sovereignty with other institutions.

It may well be that it is here, in the battle to reform the Turkish state itself, that Turkey’s European dreams will be made reality or not. This is a particularly ironic state of affairs when that very same bureaucracy’s whole original raison d’être was, in Ataturk’s words, to raise the country “to the level of contemporary civilization.” 


Jon Gorvett is a free-lance journalist based in Istanbul.