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At Last, the Opportunity to Allow Turkey to Join the European Union



Sept.22, 1999

LONDON- Quite shortly now, if he hasn't already, Turkish prime minister Bulent Ecevit will have to make up his mind whether the state should procede with the execution of the Kurdish terrorist leader, Abdullah Ocalan. On this decision Turkey's future as a serious contender for entry to the European Union is going to hang or fall.

Well, that is what a good many commentators were saying three months ago, on the conclusion of his trial. Yet, today, following the devastating earthquake in Turkey of August 17th and the serious, but rather less severe one in Greece three weeks' later, it looks as if Turkey has been allowed a new look at the starting line for entry into the European Union, without delivering any promises about Ocalan or indeed about any of the other large hurdles it supposedly has to cross- a new deal for the Kurds (the world's largest ethnic group without a state), reform of the judicial and penal system, the abolition of torture and a willingness to come to terms over divided Cyprus. All these issues over the years have not just kept Turkey's long promised membership on hold, they have encouraged senior politicians led by former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to campaign actively against the prospect of a Muslim state becoming part of a homogeneous Christian Europe.

If "nationalism is the last refuge of the scoundrel", it is in this peculiar case, where nationalism runs deeper and more irrationally than in any other part of Europe, bar the Balkans, been totally turned on its head by natural disaster. The nationalism of arch rivalry and paranoidal distrust between Turkey and Greece has been transfigured into a profound awareness of common humanity and shared destiny.

To find a convincing explanation for the volte-face is not easy, other than that ordinary people can be led by their better emotions, whatever they've said for years in the newspapers or in the bars.

But what is sure is that such emotions evaporate as quickly as they effervesce, unless a society's leaders, political, religious and social, quickly take up the baton. That this has been done, not least by the foreign minister of Greece, George Papandreou, whose father when prime minister made sure Greece would stymie any move to bring Turkey into the heart of Europe is, indeed, an historic milestone.

Thus far the new chemistry is working wonders, seemingly dissipating almost overnight centuries of mistrust that go back to Greece's long occupation by the Ottoman Turks. The mean spirited effort to undermine the other's standing has become, since the Turkish occupation in 1974 of a substantial part of Cyprus, an art form.

Yet it was usually a lopsided battle and Greece inevitably always won. Greece won accession to the European Union while Turkey was rebuffed, even though economically there was not much difference between them. The Greek part of Cyprus prospered; Turkey's stagnated. Human rights, prison conditions and police behaviour steadily improved in Greece. In Turkey, whilst there is progress it is a treacly kind of movement, that often gets stuck for years. Only in the advancement of women could Turkey be said to be ahead.

And, always, like a massive albatross around its neck, there has been the perennial issue of Turkey's minority Kurdish people and the future of divided Cyprus.

Since these latter two, in particular, are still stuck in a deep rut, the new dispensation between the two anatagonists is quite remarkable. Yet, not even high class politicans- and both Papandreou and Ecevit are a cut above the average- can keep the top spinning on a smooth road just on post-earthquake good will. If there are not tangible results quickly the popular surge of benign feelings towards the other will burn away as soon as the next, inevitable, clash of interest, catches fire.

This brings the argument back to the execution of Ocalan and, more than that, Turkey's relationship with its Kurds. For it is that issue, above all others, that poisons the relationship with the European Union.

It is not a straightforward matter. The fact that Mr Ecevit has been a long-time capital punishment abolitionist is almost irrelevant. If the army that has always called the shots on the Kurdish issue decides it is imperative that Ocalan be killed, it will simply engineer Ecevit's replacement if his personal beliefs are the stumbling block.

The army, heirs to Ataturk's legacy of the secular, singular, state, has waged a cruel war against Kurdish demands for cultural identity. Ocalan, for his part, has led a no-holds barred guerrilla force, whose demands for independence have been so extreme that most Kurds still spurn his cause. In elections most Kurds vote for one of the secular parties, rather than the pro-Kurdish one.

Perhaps to save his life, or perhaps as an act of statesmanship (and to be fair he has been offering compromises for a good two years before his arrest), Ocalan on September 1st ordered his troops to stop fighting. There has never been a more opportune time to change tack. Indeed, sources within Turkey's high command have started to suggest publically, and even more ernestly privately, that some sort of compromise with Kurdish grievances could be considered. As the Welsh in Britain now have their own native language schools and broadcasting outlets so might the Kurds have theirs.

With political movement of this order at work in Turkey this must be the moment for the European Union to strike. The Europeans should say: We expect Turkey to join along with the first entry from eastern Europe in 2005, if not sooner. But, of course, we expect Turkey to be up to standard, not just in fiscal and monetary policy but in legal, social and constitutional matters if we are going to resolve entry issues speedily. Turkey's political and military establishment will know exactly what Europe means and the pressure within Turkey be will be on to deliver the goods. (Earlier this month, for example, the president of Turkey's appeal court, Sami Selcuk, said that the constitution had a legitimacy "close to zero".)

Before, Turkey has been beaten with a European stick- "you will not be considered unless...."- a totally negative approach that has produced minimal returns. Now is the time for carrot, if an historic occasion of opportunity is not to be passed up.


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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