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Last Updated: Monday, 28 June, 2004, 16:01 GMT 17:01 UK
Turkey's unrequited EU love

By Oana Lungescu
BBC correspondent in Istanbul

Two years ago, Turkey won the Eurovision song contest with a tale of unrequited love.

In many ways, it echoed the country's own unsuccessful bid to woo the European Union since 1963, when it signed an association agreement that promised eventual membership of the bloc.

Things began moving in 1999 when Turkey was officially recognised as an EU candidate, and especially after the election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in 2002, which quickened political reforms to an unprecedented pace.

Earlier this month, Turkish state television began broadcasting in Kurdish, the language of a sizeable minority in this country of 67 million.

On the same day, the government released four Kurdish activists, including human rights award winner Leyla Zana, who had spent 10 years in jail after trials deemed unfair by the EU.

Turkish riot police secure an area to stop anti-Nato activists from getting near Nato summit building in Istanbul
Turkey's new government is working hard on reforming its image
Over the past 18 months, the government has passed nine reform packages, including a ban on the death penalty, a zero-tolerance policy towards torture in prisons, and curtailing the interference of the military in politics, education and culture.

"I am impressed - because starting with the constitution, they've changed a lot of laws," says Murat Celikan, a human rights activist who writes a regular column in the daily Radikal.

"To give one example, two years ago, a radio was banned for one year for airing a song in Kurdish and in Armenian. Now the state television has Kurdish programmes - so that's a great change."

The EU has also welcomed the reforms, but it wants them implemented across this vast country by local police, judges and bureaucrats. So far, implementation is uneven, especially in the provinces and the Kurdish areas in the south-east.

"It will take time because I am sure that the security forces especially are not yet well informed about those changes. If you want to make a demonstration in Istanbul or in an eastern province like Diyarbakir, the procedures are still different - not by law, but because of implementation," says Murat Celikan.

Investor wariness

The prospect of EU membership, coupled with IMF-inspired reforms, have also brought greater stability to the crisis-prone Turkish economy.

Huge shopping centres are full of young people in search of the latest trends. The economy is growing, while inflation has fallen to single-digit figures for the first time in decades.

It will be a big, almost the biggest country, it will be pretty much the poorest country in the EU and it's located in quite a difficult strategic security position
Kirsty Hughes
But foreign investors remain wary of Turkey. In 2002, they invested only $300m (164m), 10 times less than in Hungary, a country whose entire economy equals that of Istanbul.

Cem Duna, a leading member of the influential Turkish businessmen and industrialists association Tusiad, has this explanation.

"Hungary is a member of the European Union and has been a candidate for the past 10 years or so, this was the main reason why this happened. Now Turkey can easily amass up to $10-15bn (5.5-8bn) foreign direct investment per annum once it is on the same track, with the same finality in sight."

Meanwhile, Turkey remains poorer than the 10 countries of central and southern Europe that have just joined the EU, with living standards at about a quarter of EU levels.

Muslim giant

But in terms of population, it is as big as all of the 10 put together.

If it were to join around 2015, it would become the second biggest country in the EU after Germany.

Is the EU ready to admit such a large poor country, which also happens to border on Iraq and Syria?

Kurdish women from Turkey carry a portrait of their imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan during a protest
Kurdish rights have improved as Turkey tries to gain EU entry
Kirsty Hughes is the author of a recent study on the implications of Turkish EU membership.

"It will be a big, almost the biggest country, it will be pretty much the poorest country in the EU and it's located in quite a difficult strategically security position," she says.

"But when you actually look at what does that mean for joining the union, what it means for its economic policies, for its budget, for how it votes to make decisions, then all those things start to look manageable.

"For instance, it would have about 15% of the votes in the EU Council, that's slightly less than Germany has today in the say of how to run the EU. In budget terms it would cost about as much as the 'big bang' enlargement that we've just had.

"Now again, that's not cheap, but it's about 10% to 15% of the EU's budget so it's not as shocking as if you said it's going to be half the budget. It does have a lot of implications for EU foreign policy, but I think those will have to be taken as they come."


For Guenter Verheugen, the European enlargement commissioner, Turkey's strategic position straddling Europe and the greater Middle East is an asset rather than a drawback.

EU politicians face one of the toughest decisions they have ever had to take. If they say no to Turkey, they risk alienating a key ally in the Muslim world with unpredictable consequences. If they say yes, they may upset many voters at home who are already unhappy about where the EU is going

At a recent conference in Brussels, he warned that the EU would make a tragic mistake if it stopped or reversed the process of democratisation in Turkey by denying it eventual membership.

"The eleventh of September 2001 marks a far-reaching change in our strategic thinking. Since 11 September, the question of the relationship between Western democracies and the Islamic world is one of the most important issues in the first decade of the 21st Century.

"The question - which role will Turkey play in the organisation of that relationship - can be very crucial. Personally, I am convinced it will be crucial.

"And the process of reforms in Turkey has a meaning far beyond the borders of that country. It has a meaning for the whole Islamic world, because it demonstrates that there's no contradiction between the universal values of human rights, democracy, the state of law and a country with a Muslim population and Muslim background."

EU decision

In October, Mr Verheugen will issue a progress report on Turkey which will form the basis for the decision of EU leaders.

While the report is widely expected to be positive, public opinion in France, Germany, Austria and elsewhere is becoming increasingly reluctant to accept a further enlargement of the EU, especially to include a large Muslim nation like Turkey.

Since the Netherlands will be holding the EU's rotating presidency in the second half of the year, I asked Ben Bot, the Dutch foreign minister (and a former Dutch ambassador to Turkey) how worried he is about the lack of public support among Western voters?

"Perhaps there has been a lack of proper communication and now there is, I think, an unjustified fear of Islam, which is perhaps understandable in the context of terrorism and so on, but which is not justified - because I think that the situation in Turkey is completely different.

"They also forget that Turkey has been a member of Nato, of the Council of Europe, that it has helped the West during all these years, also during the Cold War, has been a staunch ally.

"And so, it's in itself astonishing that people all of a sudden are against Turkish participation, whereas we think that Turkey would be a very valuable member of the EU. It will take a long time, that I agree, it will certainly take many, many years of negotiations before they fully comply with all the criteria."

Indeed, in 10 years or so from now, the EU will be a very different union, and Turkey will be a very different country.

But come December, EU politicians face one of the toughest decisions they have ever had to take.

If they say no to Turkey, they risk alienating a key ally in the Muslim world. But if they say yes, they may upset many voters at home who are already unhappy about where the EU is going.

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