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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 September, 2004, 12:35 GMT 13:35 UK
Strange affair: Turkey and the EU
By Jonny Dymond
BBC Istanbul correspondent

The Ottoman-era New Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey
Turkey's preparation for EU entry is shaping a new landscape

Debate about reforms to Turkey's penal code, critical to the country's bid to join the European Union, has highlighted the relationship between the mainly-Muslim state and the 25-member bloc.

"Do you really think it's over?" I was asked earlier this week by a well-informed Turkish citizen, her eyes expressing deep concern.

The "it" in question was Turkey's progress - until this week apparently inexorable - toward membership negotiations with the European Union.

That such a question could be asked at this late stage, after more than 40 years of quasi-candidacy, is an indication of how deep the argument over the reform of the Penal Code struck.

Even those used to the bizarre and apparently illogical twists and turns of Turkish policymaking and parliamentary procedure were left baffled by the row over the criminalisation of adultery.

For a few days, it appeared to threaten the country's last major reform effort and with it the hopes of a positive report from the European Commission.

But that argument is over.

Darker corners

Barring catastrophe, parliament will pass the last clauses of the reformed Penal Code when it meets in special session on Sunday.

It should appear in the Official Gazette before 6 October and the last plank in Turkey's overhaul of its criminal, constitutional and human rights infrastructure will be in place as the Commission publishes its assessment of the country's fitness for entry into the EU.

So was this strange affair anything more than a bad case of pre-nuptial nerves - a tense time in an intense relationship, as the Turkish representative to the EU called it in an interview with BBC World Service?

It looked a little more than that.

Light has been thrown onto the darker corners of both the EU and Turkey. Each side will have to get used to the other.

After the Penal Code reforms were suspended in Parliament the muttering from the EU became vociferous.

The reforms, officials said in briefings, simply had to be in place if the Commission was going to clear Turkey for membership.

Sharp stick

Those comments produced a sharp rebuke from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - Turkish policy would be decided in Turkey, he said, and the country would brook no interference from outsiders.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish domestic policy is increasingly directed by Brussels

It will have played well in the electoral heartland. But it is, of course, complete fantasy.

Because Turkey has, by trying for membership, opened itself up to a more than a decade of being told what to do, in no uncertain terms, by the EU.

The last three years have seen near-revolutionary changes; among them

  • the Civil Code overhauled
  • minority groups given cultural rights
  • the military's role in government curtailed
  • freedoms of assembly, speech, and association all bolstered

    None of this would have come about, it is pretty fair to say, without the sharp stick wielded by Brussels.

    It has been a debate carried out largely between Turkey's elites and EU officials; the public has, for the most part, been uninvolved.

    But that could well change in the coming decade, presuming membership negotiations start.

    What will happen, a European diplomat asked me recently, when the Commission insists on an environmental upgrade to a factory that it cannot afford?

    Stubborn patriotism

    What happens if the factory closes? This would be taking place before Turkey is an EU member, as it attempts to bring itself into line with Europe over more than political criteria.

    The complaints about the attitude of the EU over the adultery legislation did not all come from die-hard Islamists; far from it.

    A fair amount of stubborn patriotism - you might call it nationalism - lies not far from the surface in Turkey.

    "We've done so much for Europe, and they've done nothing for us," I was told recently by a businessman in Istanbul.

    It is a common theme, amplified by the row over the Penal Code.

    It is a product of the lack of debate amongst citizens about the costs and benefits of Turkey's European dream.

    Maybe that debate is about to start.

    You cannot help feeling that now, rather than five years down the line, would be the best time.

    The BBC's Stephen Sackur
    "Chaos and confusion in Turkish politics"

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