Friday, January 04, 2008

Turkey must move fast to avoid EU setbacks

January 4, 2008
By Paul Taylor

BRUSSELS: Turkey faces a potential "triple whammy" of blows to its European Union membership bid later this year unless re-elected Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan moves quickly to enact human rights reforms, EU diplomats say.

Ankara's accession talks, launched in October 2005, have already been slowed to a trickle by the suspension of part of the negotiations over its refusal to open its ports and airports to traffic from EU member Cyprus.

Now the Turks face a negative European Commission progress report, renewed pressure from Cyprus, and French demands for the EU to discuss setting final borders, with Turkey on the outside.

"Erdogan needs to push laws through the new parliament on freedom of expression, the rights of religious minorities and other fundamental freedoms quickly to give the Commission something positive to report," a senior EU official said.

Without that, the annual progress report due on Nov. 7 is bound to conclude that reforms have virtually ceased over the last year, he said.

Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn made the point forcefully in congratulating Erdogan on Sunday's landslide general election victory for his Islamist-rooted AK party.

"We need in particular to see concrete results in areas of fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression and religious freedom," he told a news conference on Monday.

"I trust that the new government in Turkey will immediately relaunch the reform process so we can produce results (before) our next progress report in early November."

Joost Lagendijk, co-chairman of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Assembly, said the top priority was to amend or abolish article 301 of the Penal Code, used repeatedly to prosecute writers and journalists for "insulting Turkishness".

That law was used to prosecute Nobel prize winning author Orhan Pamuk and to convict Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink, later murdered, for expressing peaceful views on the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915.

A long-stalled law on religious foundations giving more rights to Christian and other minorities and better treatment to the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul is another priority, Lagendijk said.

Turkish political commentators say Erdogan will face resistance from a nationalist opposition, whose acquiescence he needs to get his candidate for president chosen by parliament. The presidency, though armed with few executive powers, is a potent symbol of secularism for a conservative establishment that suspects Erdogan of harbouring a secret Islamist agenda.

The prime minister must also tread carefully with a military suspicious of his Islamist past and nervous about some EU-driven reforms. The AK party has cut back the generals' formal state powers under these reforms, but they remain a force on the political stage.

Erdogan could win more European goodwill by withdrawing some troops from northern Cyprus, making a concession on trade with Cyprus or opening Turkey's border with Armenia, but such moves seem unlikely as they would inflame nationalist sentiment.

Diplomats said Cyprus and France would likely jump on a critical European Commission report to demand further sanctions against Turkey or a rethink of its candidacy.

That too could provoke a nationalist backlash among Turks.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has repeatedly said Turkey is in Asia Minor, not Europe, and has no place in the EU.

His foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said on Monday that Paris had a problem with five of the 35 "chapters" or policy areas into which the accession talks are divided, because in French eyes they assumed the outcome of full membership. But it was willing to allow the rest of the negotiations to proceed.

Another senior French official, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, has suggested Sarkozy could be satisfied in December with a summit agreement to appoint a committee to study the future of enlargement and the capacity to absorb new members.

That might kick the problem into touch for a year, but the panel would report back under France's presidency of the EU in the second half of 2008, possibly fuelling Sarkozy's drive to move the goalposts on Turkey's talks.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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