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Sunday, September 12, 1999 Published at 21:52 GMT 22:52 UK

World: Europe

Analysis: Shifting attitudes towards Turkey

Turkish and Greek rescue teams teamed up after the Athens quake

By BBC regional analyst Pam O'Toole

Turkey's Foreign Minister Ismael Cem will meet his European Union counterparts in Brussels on Monday as the EU prepares a financial package to help Ankara recover from last month's disastrous earthquake.

However, the issue of Turkey's long-standing application to join the EU is also likely to be raised - and Ankara's prospects have never looked better.

[ image: Relations between the two countries were icy when Greece aided rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan]
Relations between the two countries were icy when Greece aided rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan
Turkey has been trying to join the EU since the early 1960s. But it has been hampered by its poor relations with Greece, which has consistently blocked its candidacy, and by its human rights record.

In recent years, it has become increasingly frustrated as it watched other states formally accepted as EU candidates, while it was again pushed to the back of the queue. Its last rejection - in 1997 - poisoned Ankara's relations with Europe.

The Turkish foreign minister's presence in Brussels on Monday marks a move towards normalising relations. And it comes amid signs that Turkey's long wait for EU membership could finally be reaching an end.

Kosovo co-operation

Many analysts believe the EU may decide to formally accept Turkey as candidate for membership at a summit in Helsinki in December.

Such a move has been made possible by a sea-change in relations between Ankara and Athens.

Only six months ago, relations between the two were icy, after Greece sheltered Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of Turkey's Kurdish rebel group, the PKK, in its diplomatic premises in Kenya.

By the summer, the atmosphere had perceptibly improved, following co-operation between the two nations over Kosovo and talks over non-controversial issues of mutual interest.

[ image: Greece and Turkey have yet to settle the thorny issue of the divided island of Cyprus]
Greece and Turkey have yet to settle the thorny issue of the divided island of Cyprus
But the real breakthrough came in August, with an outpouring of aid and support from Athens in the wake of the Turkish earthquake. When Greece suffered its own quake this month, Turkey was happy to reciprocate.

Now, for the first time, Athens has indicated it is willing to support eventual Turkish membership of the EU.

Greece and Turkey have yet to solve the most serious problems between them - the Cyprus question and their territorial dispute over the Aegean.

Swedish stumbling block

Athens has also yet to unblock substantial EU funds earmarked for Turkey. But some analysts suggest Greece may no longer represent a major obstacle to Turkish membership of the Union, particularly if Ankara can be persuaded to drop its opposition to existing negotiations over Cypriot accession.

Turkey - and its ally the United States - would like to see Ankara accepted as a formal candidate in Helsinki, as would a number of EU members. Ankara's supporters are hoping that talks on the sidelines of the Brussels meeting could help to lay the groundwork.

However, there are still potential problems. Sweden, while supporting recent Turkish proposals for constitutional reform, has called for further progress from Ankara on human rights.

Human rights

It is not yet clear whether Stockholm would be willing to block Turkey's candidacy over this issue. The Swedish foreign ministry says only that it's looking forward to a constructive dialogue in Brussels.

Turkey's supporters say there is plenty of time for Ankara to introduce human rights reforms.

Even if Ankara's candidacy is formally accepted in December, experts say it could take up to 15 years for Turkey to introduce the reforms needed to become a full EU member.

But from Ankara's point of view, a formal acceptance would represent a long-awaited sign that it is finally on the road to join the EU.

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