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Monday, September 6, 1999 Published at 19:08 GMT 20:08 UK

World: Europe

Greece and Turkey: A new era?

The earthquake prompted a wave of sympathy in Greece

By Chris Morris in Ankara

Turkish officials have reacted cautiously to suggestions that widespread sympathy for Turkey following last month's massive earthquake could translate into real political progress in its efforts to become an official candidate for membership of the European Union.

Expectations have been raised before, only to be dashed in a flurry of mutual recriminations. Ankara has still not forgiven European leaders for snubbing Turkey two years ago, when the EU chose its list of potential new candidates.

[ image: Turkey's Bulent Ecevit says the door has been opened]
Turkey's Bulent Ecevit says the door has been opened
The big difference this time, however, is that the impetus for a change in policy has come from Turkey's traditional rival Greece. The government in Athens has been looking for a chance to score some public relations points to help it recover from the fiasco surrounding its attempts to shelter the Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan earlier this year.

The earthquake which devastated north-western Turkey last month, killing at least 15,000 people, provided the perfect opportunity. Emergency assistance from Greece came quickly and freely, and many ordinary Turks were genuinely touched. Politicians and the media began to speak of the dawn of a new era.

There have been practical examples to boost the optimism. Leading Greek and Turkish football teams played a friendly match to raise funds for earthquake victims, while business leaders from the two countries have renewed contacts which had been frozen in the wake of the Ocalan affair.

Differences remain

Despite the encouraging signs, more cautious observers are urging that hopes should not be raised too high. There does seem to be a real desire to change course, and the political atmosphere has improved. Given the usual state of bilateral relations between Greece and Turkey that is an achievement in itself. But basic policy differences on Cyprus and on territorial disputes in the Aegean Sea remain.

The Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit has admitted that it will take time to solve these complex questions, which have been bitterly contested for years. "But", he said "at least the door to further dialogue has been opened".

For their part, Greek officials have made it clear that Turkey will have to make substantial concessions in order to prove its credentials to join the EU. These include a different policy towards Cyprus, and towards the Kurdish conflict in south-eastern Turkey. There is nothing Ankara likes less than an offer with those kind of strings attached.

Raising the stakes

[ image: Different policy on Kurdish conflict]
Different policy on Kurdish conflict
Support for Turkey within the EU certainly seems to be growing, but Greece still wields the ultimate power of veto. Other EU member states also insist that Turkey must make more progress towards democratisation and human rights reform before its candidacy can be formally accepted.

So most Turkish officials are well aware that it would be naive to think that sympathy for thousands of earthquake victims will lead seamlessly towards EU membership. It is a long term process, and there will be many frustrations to come in the future.

The Turkish Foreign Minister Ismael Cem has once again raised the stakes, however. He has warned that if Turkey's candidacy is not accepted at an EU summit in Finland at the end of this year, Ankara may withdraw its application for good.

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