- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2005

Afterlong,nerve-wrecking, last-minute negotiations, the European Union backed away from the precipice last night when Turkey’s accession talks formally kicked off in Luxembourg.

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel believed his country represented a European majority in opposing Turkey’s entrance into the talks. Though 24 members agreed, and in December Turkey was told it met the criteria to move forward, Austrians think it is nearly impossible to integrate into the EU a poor and populous country, culturally and religiously different than the Europeans. Or at least that was what held them back until yesterday.

That concern is reminiscent of the old Turkish shadow play of Karagoz. The hero, a poor soldier named Visal, finds a wife through a matchmaker. After the wedding, he lifts the bride’s veil to discover a horrifically ugly woman beneath it. Visal threatens both the matchmaker and the matchmaker’s husband, and goes on a pilgrimage to purify himself.

Mr. Schuessel is hardly delighted by the EU leadership under British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the leading matchmaker between Turkey and the EU, who pushed him to drop his objections to Turkey’s membership. The last-minute intervention of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice supporting Turkey may have even made him feel more isolated, and deepened the perception that Europeans are incapable of solving their problems alone. The Austrian demand to offer Turkey a “privileged partnership” is history now.

In addition, Mr. Schuessel is so adamant that Turkey joining the EU will be disastrous that he has persuaded himself that he is in even a worse position than Visal — that when Turkey becomes a member to the EU, it will be ugly, and there is no way for it to become part of the European way of life. Which is why Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “There are those who cannot free themselves from prejudice.”

The most amazing thing about those who hold such views is that they forget Turkey did not apply to the EU to promote its religion. It first became an associate EU member in 1963, applied for full membership in 1987, and in 1992 became the first associate country to sign the Customs Union agreement before becoming a full member. Yet, Turkey has been part of the EU process for 40 years because it is a secular, democratic country that cherishes the same values as Europeans — and it has also been a NATO ally since 1952.

British Foreign Minister Jack Straw reminded the Austrians that “when Western Europe needed defense, along with the United States, it looked to Turkey for that defense on its eastern flank against the then-Soviet Union… No issues were then raised that it had an Islamic majority.”

Despite all the tough talk, Philip Gordon, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe, is still hopeful about Turkey’s future in the EU, saying that the 35 percent to 45 percent of Europeans who support its full membership is a good start.

Mr. Gordon also challenges the EU counter-declaration to Turkey, which insisted that it should recognize Cyprus (or more specifically, the Greek-Cypriot administration) before it becomes a full member. Mr. Gordon says the condition was a given, and was added to provoke Turkey into not cooperating with the EU. Turks also cite the European Parliament’s demand to recognize the Armenian genocide as another means.

Yet Turkey continues to beat the odds. Although public opinion polls in Germany and Austria significantly oppose Turkey’s EU membership, the leaders who ran elections based on anti-Turkish sentiment lost their elections. The German Christian Democrat leader Angela Merkel lost, and Mr. Schuessel lost in a region that was a stronghold for his People’s Party since 1945. And while France insists that its people have an opportunity to approve or reject Turkey in a referendum, Germany’s outgoing foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, warns, “You can not build Europe on the basis of referendums.”

A recent Turkish public opinion poll showed nearly 60 percent still support the EU membership. Turks remain hopeful, like in a famous Turkish movie portraying the same story as the Karagoz play, but which cast a beautiful actress as the ugly bride. The groom had seen her ugly — it was the art of makeup — until it was time to unveil her. Yet when they wed, he was so surprised to see the bride because what he had seen was beautiful, and he fell in love.

A senior American diplomat told me last week he was sure the talks would start because Turkey’s full membership is 10 to 15 years down the road. But while the talk of Turkey’s EU candidacy has always broken some crockery, Mr. Straw warned the EU that it should get it right, and “we reach the sunny uplands.”

Today we hope the future negotiations segue into smart, emotionally less exhausting, and legally tight conversations to make the full partnership between the EU and Turkey a reality.

Tulin Daloglu is the Washington correspondent and columnist for Turkey’s Star TV and newspaper. A former BBC reporter, she writes occasionally for The Washington Times.

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