- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Some call it “an Islamic cloud over Europe” and dread the day when the European Union opens the Continent’s gates to Turkey.

For others, the prospect of Turkey’s EU membership has revived the century-old cliche about “Europe’s sick man,” as the Ottoman Empire was called.

These opponents fear that the subsidies the European Union will be expected to give to that poor country of 71 million with galloping population growth will strain the union’s finances at the expense of other members.

European businessmen point to Turkey’s growth potential and the dramatic improvement of its economic posture in the past three years. They see Turkey as a major and growing market for European exports.

EU heads of state are to make a decision on starting negotiations on Turkey’s accession at their Dec. 17 summit in Brussels.

If European leaders begin negotiations, the earliest Turkey could be eligible for EU membership would be 2014, said Jonathan Davidson, senior adviser for political and academic affairs at the Delegation of the European Commission to the United States. He was speaking at a recent conference on Turkey and the European Union at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, Osman Faruk Logoglu, said that failing to extend full membership to Turkey would be a major mistake by European leaders.

“If the European Union wants to become a club and close up on itself, that would be a choice, but it would not be a good choice,” Mr. Logoglu said.

The United States has been urging the European Union to accept Turkey without qualms, despite objections from several European governments. It has been suggested in Europe that Washington considers Turkey, straddling Europe and Asia over the Bosporus, as a reliable ally and perhaps a U.S. proxy in one of the world’s most explosive regions.

After Turkey joins Europe, proponents of Turkish membership contend, its nationalism will decline and its commitment to European values will increase.

“Opponents argue: ‘Why bring in a country that neighbors such an unstable area and might bring in trafficking, drugs, terrorism and weapons,’” Mr. Davidson said.

Concerns about Ankara’s human rights record also have surfaced. Ten years ago, torture, executions and political killings were commonplace, said Jonathan Sugden, a researcher for the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Right Watch.

But the allure of EU membership, he said, encouraged the government to push through sweeping reforms, including abolishing the death penalty and improving access to legal counsel. In a symbolic gesture to its Kurdish minority, Turkey also has legalized broadcasting in Kurdish.

Nonetheless, challenges to human rights linger, Mr. Sugden said.

“The remaining problem is that police stations are still relatively unsupervised,” he said. “They certainly don’t have any independent observation.”

Human Rights Watch is pressing the Turkish government to allow the country’s bar and medical associations to monitor the police stations.

Three weeks before the summit, the European Union urged Turkey to step up the pace of its legal reforms and warned that there was still no consensus among member states on Turkey’s credentials.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul insisted that, in view of the positive EU report on its performance more than a month ago, Turkey had “earned the right” to formal accession talks.

As Ankara awaits the verdict on its application, conflicting views and emotions gnaw at the 25-nation European Union. The official policy is to avoid for the time bringing any in-depth debate on the divisive issue.

Franck Fregosi of the Robert Schuman University in Strasbourg, France, said, “The fundamental issue is whether a Muslim country has a place in Europe. Everybody is trying to sidestep” this.

The underlying issue appears to be the feeling across Europe that Turkey’s religion could hinder its adaptability in joining the predominantly Christian bloc, where many history books still refer to the Ottoman Empire as “the scourge of Christendom.” Although overwhelmingly Muslim, Turkey has been a secular republic for 80 years since the overthrow of Ottoman rule.

Typical of extreme European views was the question put by French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin: “Do we want the river of Islam to enter the riverbed of secularism?”

European critics of Turkish aspirations point out that the more than 3 million Turkish workers now in Europe — mainly in Germany, France and Austria — generally have not integrated into the societies of their host countries.

To Turkish officials hoping to start membership negotiations sometime next year, the issue perturbing Europeans has no basis, because religion is not among the criteria for new EU members. Turkey, they say, has satisfied the union’s conditions as far as democracy, human rights and economic criteria are concerned.

Turkish officials and the press generally brush aside European concerns as bigotry. Some blame this on the revival of Islamic fundamentalism among Turkish immigrant workers in Europe.

To the Hellenic world, Turkey is a traditional enemy that occupies a third of divided Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean.

Greece watches Turkey across the narrow waters of the Aegean Sea separating some of its islands from the Turkish mainland. From the high-rise buildings of Nicosia, Greek Cypriots cannot escape a giant sign on the Turkish-controlled Kyrenia range proclaiming: “Lucky is the man who was born a Turk.”

The quotation was a favorite phrase of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the Turkish Republic on the crumbling ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1923.

On Cyprus, the Greek portion, which joined the European Union in May, feels that Turkey should fulfill five conditions before being allowed to join the European club. They include a pledge to withdraw its expeditionary corps from Cyprus, restore property to Greek Cypriots in the northern part of the island controlled by Turkey, and, above all, recognize the Greek Cypriot government as the legitimate ruler of all Cyprus.

Turkey has refused to consider such proposals.

Mr. Gul, the foreign minister, said: “For us, negotiations mean negotiations for full [EU] membership. No conditions or alternatives are possible.”

The government in Athens has warned Turkey that “nonrecognition of an EU member by a candidate country is a political and institutional absurdity.”

Washington has intensified diplomatic pressure on Turkey to recognize Cyprus before the EU summit.

The Greek Cypriot government has vacillated between threats to veto Turkey’s accession process and statements promising a more conciliatory attitude. But a poll shows a majority of Greek Cypriots favor a veto because Turkey “has not dealt properly with the Cyprus problem.”

The European Commission, the European Union’s executive body, has said from the beginning that negotiations with Turkey would be long, and during that period Turkey was expected to improve its human rights record and democratic credentials.

If Turkey falters, the commission said, the talks would be broken off.

Turkey has been knocking on Europe’s door for the past 40 years — since the creation of the European Economic Community, predecessor of the European Union.

The decisive stage was reached Oct. 6, when the commission said that Turkey “sufficiently fulfilled the political criteria” and recommended that “accession negotiations be opened.”

Since then, the European Union has engaged in considerable diplomatic maneuvers to persuade reluctant members that Turkish membership would not harm them, that Islam would not threaten Europe, and that subsidies to Turkey would not break the European Central Bank.

Still, many doubts persist.

The European Union’s rotating presidency, now held by the Netherlands, has opposed a detailed discussion of Turkey’s credentials, apparently to spare Turkish sensitivities. Given the importance of the problem, several countries have pressed for full discussion.

Opposition to Turkish membership is varied. It includes the German Christian Democrats, whose leader, Angela Merkel, suggested a “special relationship” between Turkey and the European Union instead of membership.

Turkey has rejected the suggestion.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the European Community asked last month whether “it is appropriate to open negotiations with Turkey while fundamental rights, including religious freedom, are not fully respected in that state.”

Turkey’s European aspirations are part of the heritage of Ataturk, who, by fiat, turned Turkey westward, abandoning the Arab alphabet and traditional Middle Eastern garb including the colorful fez, abolished polygamy and gave women the right to vote before several European countries did.

After Ataturk’s death in 1938, many Turks were tempted by the prospect of closer relations with the Arab countries. This temptation evaporated when Turkey joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), participated in the U.N.-sanctioned war in Korea and became closely involved with U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Turkey’s military has emerged as the nation’s most cohesive force. It carried out three major coups to remove politicians considered to be tarnishing the heritage of Ataturk.

The Middle East stopped being a magnet, particularly after Turkey’s 1996 defense cooperation treaty with Israel.

Never seriously welcomed by Arab countries with memories of harsh Ottoman rule, the country obeyed Ataturk’s order to “turn toward Europe.”

On the economic front, Turkey on Jan. 1 will slash six zeros from its inflated currency. The government has been pushing through a radical restructuring of public services and modernizing administrative methods that in some cases had not changed since the 1920s.

Turkey has tightened spending controls, put monetary policies in the hands of an independent central bank and started cutting administrative red tape.

Its imports from the European Union rose to $26 billion in the first seven months of 2004, up 47 percent from the same period last year. Exports to the European Union rose 24 percent, to $17 billion.

Turkey is still a poor country by European standards, with a per capita income of $6,500 and an economic output a third of that of the average EU member.

• Heather J. Carlson in Washington contributed to this report.

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