Turkey’s EU dream overshadowed by elections
By Claudia Parsons
All but one of Turkey’s myriad political parties claim to be in favour of rights reforms to qualify for European Union membership but the chances of passing those measures in the near future are slipping.
The EU is due to decide on admitting up to 10 mainly east European states at a summit in Copenhagen in December, and if Turkey is not given at least some sign of encouragement its progress towards joining may grind to a halt.
Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit warned on Thursday that early elections, now all but certain to be held on November 3, would hold up progress towards meeting the EU’s strict criteria on human rights and democracy before the December deadline.
Ecevit’s deputy prime minister Mesut Yilmaz, a vociferous advocate of EU membership, has spent the past week touting a package of 13 EU-inspired reforms including easing restrictions on use of the Kurdish language and lifting the death penalty.
The package goes further than that, to the surprise of some, tackling also questions of freedom of expression and association as well as raising penalties for human smuggling in a move that could go some way to pacifying conservative EU members’ fears about illegal immigration.
“They actually have a package that could surprise a number of people positively,” said one Western diplomat.
“One of the dilemmas is the more ambitious the package is, the more difficult it will be to drive it through — and it looks quite ambitious,” the diplomat said.
Yilmaz, leader of the Motherland Party, is pressing for parliament to tackle the EU package before it votes to set a date for elections, fearing that once a date is set deputies will concentrate exclusively on being re-elected. “All the MPs will rush to their constituencies and start working to be re-elected so they won’t care whether the EU reforms are passed or not,” said Sami Kohen, columnist at Milliyet newspaper, sharing Yilmaz’s fears.
Parliament is due to be recalled from summer recess next Monday to set elections and possibly debate the EU reforms.
“There’s plenty of time if they want to do it,” Kohen said. “If the parliamentarians want to work, they can do it within two or three weeks...they can decide an election date and spend the whole month of August passing all kinds of reform laws.”
Party commitment: But Kohen said there was a worrying lack of commitment in some parties, even those apparently in favour of the EU.
“It’s a chaotic situation. You have each party with two or three different views,” he told Reuters.
The newly-founded New Turkey Party, led by former Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, has cast itself as pro-Western and dedicated to achieving Turkey’s decades-old aim of joining the EU, seen by Turks as likely to bring prosperity and stability.
But Yilmaz said a recent round of meetings with party leaders including Cem had shown less than whole-hearted support.
“I have to say that, except for the (Islamist) Saadet Party, I saw none of the support they had promised from parties that had pledged unconditional support for EU reforms,” Yilmaz said.
Media commentator Mehmet Ali Birand said he was not optimistic the laws could be passed, and that would play into the hands of those in Europe who do not want Turkey to join.
“All the parties prefer to leave the thorny issues like language and the death penalty until after the elections because they’re squeezed and they don’t want to lose any votes.”
Turkish financial markets, generally approving of efforts to tie the Muslim NATO country more strongly to the West, have sunk in past days on belief that the EU reforms will not pass.
EU diplomats say Turkey’s chances of winning a firm date at Copenhagen for the start of negotiations were always slim, even in the best-case scenario of reforms being passed and a pro-Western government winning the November elections.
“The implementation aspect is overlooked still by the Turkish side,” said one diplomat. Turkey needs to be seen consistently implementing reforms improving freedom of expression and religion and ending torture, for example.
The best Ankara can expect from Copenhagen is recognition that it has taken important strides since it was admitted as a candidate country in 1999, and possibly a vague reference to a timetable for its future progress.
All this could be complicated by Cyprus. Peace talks under way on the divided Mediterranean island since January have made no progress towards the goal of reuniting the estranged Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot populations. The EU says the Turkish Cypriot side is being intransigent.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded the northern third of the island in response to a brief Greek Cypriot coup aimed at union with Greece.
Cyprus is a frontrunner for EU admission and is expecting a positive answer at Copenhagen in December. Admission without a solution would likely provoke a crisis with Turkey, which has talked of annexing the north in such a case, in what could be a fatal blow for Ankara’s own EU ambitions.
No Turkish politician is likely to take a conciliatory line on Cyprus in an election campaign. What happens after November will depend on who wins what looks to be a wide-open race. —Reuters