European Affairs

A Cautious Yes to Ankara, But Concerns Remain     Print Email
Toivo Tänavsuu

The European Commission's finding that Turkey is ready to begin negotiations for EU entry does not mean that Turkish membership is now assured - the Commission has rather given Turkey a flashing yellow light that could turn green if Ankara continues with economic and political reforms. It could also turn red. In the words of former Commission President Romano Prodi, "It is a qualified Yes that is accompanied by a large number of recommendations on following up and monitoring the situation in Turkey.

The Commission report said that, "Turkey has achieved significant legislative progress in many areas, such as for instance implementation of political and economic reforms, but these need to be further consolidated and broadened. High inflation in Turkey has come down to historic lows, political interference by the government in the economy has been reduced and the institutional and regulatory framework has been brought closer to international standards. Government control over the military had increased significantly, it added. While the Commission praised Turkey's progress in many areas, it also added reservations. Among its main points were:

  • Human rights are generally protected and abusive behavior toward prisoners, for example, is not customary any more. Nevertheless, cases of torture still occur.
  • The victims of violence committed by the security forces or extremist political groups are often women.
  • Progress has been achieved in the protection of the rights of Turkish children, but illegal child labor is still common.
  • Freedom of expression and a free press are ideals for which many Turks strive, but which do not exist in practice.


More generally, Turkey has to prove in the years to come that it is oriented toward EU accession. The Commission will strictly monitor further reforms, and the entry negotiations may be broken off any time. Even the more optimistic supporters of Turkish membership believe that the country is unlikely to join the European Union until 2015, or perhaps 2020, at the earliest. According to French President Jacques Chirac, concerns over Turkey's eventual membership are premature, because no one knows whether Turkey will have met the requirements some 15 years from now. While many EU governments support Turkish membership, they are treading carefully because opinion polls indicate that many of their citizens are against it.

Mr. Chirac's comment reflects opinion polls suggesting that at least 50 percent, and perhaps as many as 75 percent, of French people oppose Turkish entry. In Germany, polls suggest that public opinion is becoming more supportive of Turkish membership, but while the Government is in favor, the opposition Christian Democrats want Turkey to be given a "privileged partnership with the European Union instead. The British and Italian governments have strongly supported Turkish entry (although the Vatican is opposed on religious grounds), while the Netherlands is broadly in favor. Greece strongly supports Turkey's bid as part of a policy of rapprochement with its old antagonist to promote stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. Austria has been a consistent opponent of Turkish entry, while Denmark has urged caution. Spain, Sweden and Poland have indicated their support. But large swathes of public opinion remained unconvinced. Surveys suggest many Europeans fear that the huge size and relative poverty of Turkey would lead to a flood of migrants westward, and that their jobs could be threatened by cheap Turkish labor.

Turkish GDP per head is only 26 percent of the EU average - making it the poorest country ever to seek to join the Union - and one third of its population is engaged in agriculture. Franz Fischler, the former Commissioner for Agriculture, has warned that the European Union's current regional aid and agricultural policies could simply not accommodate the demands of Turkey. EU taxpayers have certainly not yet shown much enthusiasm for supporting what would undoubtedly be huge Turkish demands on EU finances. The Commission estimates that almost Þ28 billion a year, including Þ11 billion for agriculture, would be spent on Turkey if it were a member, or more than a quarter of the current annual EU budget.

Turkey's need for EU structural cohesion funds would greatly reduce the benefits available for the eight new EU members in Central and Eastern Europe, not to mention older members such as Spain, Greece and Portugal. Some Europeans also fear that the admission of Turkey, a Muslim though officially secular country, would help to spread Islam more widely throughout the continent, and many do not consider Turkey to be a European country. According to some forecasts, the admission of Turkey would mean that there would be more mosque-going Muslims in the European Union than church-attending Christians. In order to calm such fears, Olli Rehn, the new European Commissioner for Enlargement, has spoken of possibly permanent limits on the freedom of movement of Turkish workers. In the opinion of some experts, however, such a derogation of one of the fundamental freedoms of the European Union would mean the beginning of the end of the Union. The most likely outcome is a very long transition period before Turkish workers could move freely throughout the Union. Mr. Prodi argues that fears about Turkey are not justified. "A Europe that is sure of itself, has a constitution and strong institutions and policies, is returning to economic growth and is based on a strong model of peace, prosperity and solidarity has nothing to fear from the integration of Turkey, he stated. He warned, however, that Turkish membership was not a foregone conclusion. Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, said that Turkey had undergone remarkable changes over the last few years, putting in place the extensive reforms the European Union had demanded. Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister, also welcomed the Commission's report. Nevertheless, Edmund Stoiber, Prime Minister of Bavaria and Christian Democratic candidate for Chancellor in 2002, warned that Europe's borders should not reach as far as Iraq, Iran and Syria. "Anyone who doesn't know his limits is in danger of over-stretching himself, and Europe is in acute danger of this, he said. Mr. Chirac has also warned that France could use its right of veto to prevent Turkish entry, if necessary, and Cyprus, which only joined the Union in May 2004, has dropped similar hints. Greek Cypriots are disturbed that Turkey recognizes only the Turkish community of Cyprus, and not the Greek-Cypriot government. Cypriot diplomats have been reported as saying that it would be impossible for Nicosia to accept the opening of EU talks with Ankara so long as Turkey does not recognize one of the 25 member states. Most of the ten new member states, however, supported the Commission's conclusions.

"Turkey is the best example of a democratic state in the Islamic world. It is proof that the fundamental values of Western democracy can also be applied in Islamic countries, said Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, the Polish Foreign Minister. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Vice-Chairman of the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs, said he doubted Turkey would join by 2015, but supported the country's aspirations. "The European Union needs energy sources independent from Russia and also more people. Thirty years from now there won't be enough people in the European Union to pay enough tax to ensure our pensions ø we have to find them, he said.

Toivo Tänavsuu is Correspondent for EU issues for the Estonian daily newspaper Eesti Pþevaleht.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number V, Issue number III in the Fall of 2004.