Europe set for clash over Turkish question

Turkey and the West: Cyprus, human rights and growing nationalism are seen in the EU as obstacles to a closer relationship

Ankara said yesterday that it would block Nato's expansion if Turkey is excluded from the European Union. "As a principle Turkey favors Nato's expansion," President Suleyman Demirel said after meeting with Nato Secretary General Javier Solana. But, an official added, "faced with an EU enlargement which does not embrace Turkey, (Demirel) has explained that the Turkish public will not support Nato's expansion."

The statement underlines how Western governments are grappling with a modern version of the 19th-century Eastern Question. They want to put relations with Turkey on a more stable footing but seem divided over how to go about it. Among the unanswered questions are whether Turkey should join the European Union, how much importance to attach to human rights issues, and how to prevent Greek-Turkish tensions from flaring into war.

Divisions among Western governments were highlighted this week when the Dutch Foreign Minister, Hans van Mierlo, strongly implied that Turkey should never be admitted as a full EU member. "There is a problem of a large Muslim state. Do we want that in Europe?" asked Mr van Mierlo, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.

This was not the public position adopted last week by the foreign ministers of the five biggest EU powers - Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain - when they held a special meeting in Rome to discuss relations with Turkey. France's Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, said that the five ministers had reassured Turkey that there were "no obstacles in principle" to Turkish membership of the EU.

Turkey applied to join the EU in 1987, but the European Commission ruled that its economy was not ready and its political institutions were insufficiently democratic. An EU-Turkish customs union came into effect last year, but Greece has blocked the funds that were supposed to flow to Turkey.

Secular, broadly pro-Western Turkish politicians such as the Foreign Minister, Tansu Ciller, have begun to sound more nationalistic and critical of the West. As for the Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, few Western leaders have forgotten how he once described the EU customs union as a form of "slavery to the Christian establishment". Since coming to power last June, Mr Erbakan has made friendly overtures to Islamic states while pointedly refusing to visit Western capitals.

The risk of a total Turkish break with the West seems small, but some problems will not go away, such as poor prison conditions, torture, lack of civil rights for ethnic Kurds and restrictions on free speech. The sharp deterioration in relations between Greece and Turkey is another source of concern. Some fear that the risk of war over Cyprus is becoming all too real.

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