EU abandons Kurds to gain a stable Turkey

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European foreign ministers, increasingly concerned over a developing political and economic crisis in Turkey, have worked out a compromise to bring Ankara into a customs union with Europe this year.

Under the deal, Greece may be persuaded to drop its veto of the customs union in exchange for an understanding that negotiations to admit a divided Cyprus to full European Union membership be speeded up.

Closer relations with Turkey could also provide leverage for Western Europe in brokering a Cyprus settlement. However senior Turkish officials said last night that they took strong exception to any link between an EU trade deal and progress towards Cypriot membership of the EU. Turkish troops invaded the island in 1974 and the northern third was declared an independent republic, recognised only by Ankara.

The price for progress appears to be the abandonment by European foreign ministries of any link between human rights and trade relations. Human rights groups and supporters of Turkey's Kurdish opposition will be dismayed. So will members of the European Parliament. Turkey came under only modest pressure to improve its human rights record at a foreign ministers' meeting in London yesterday designed to smooth Ankara's path towards closer trade links with Europe. Murat Karayalcin, had talks wi th counterparts from Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and the French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, both raised their concerns with Mr Karayalcin, including the imprisonment of eight Kurdish deputies and the case of a dissident writer facing prosecution. But there was noeffort to make progress in trade and political relations conditional on change.

The meeting came a day after the US State Department released a report concluding the human rights situation in Turkey "worsened significantly" last year as the army stepped up the eight-year-old war against Kurdish separatists, a conflict that has cost 14,000 lives. The report condemned disappearances and mysterious murders of Kurds in south-east Turkey, saying the security forces used torture and excessive force.

"Various agencies of the government continue to harass, intimidate, indict and imprison human rights monitors, journalists, lawyers and professors," the State Department said.

But the US, like Britain and a majority of EU states, places a high priority on seeing the customs union in place. Under its terms, the EU would abolish tariffs on Turkish industrial products, Turkey would adopt EU common commercial policy, and there would be greater consultation.

The aim is to help Turkey out of a downward economic spiral that could threaten its development and bring a radical Islamic party to power. Consumer price inflation hit 125 per cent in 1994 . The Finance Ministry said this week that the 1994 budget deficit rose to $3.6bn (£2.3bn) and the 1995 estimate is $4.9bn. Most European foreign ministers believe the greater need is to help Turkey to develop as a democratic and secular Muslim nation, maintaining a pro-Western orientation in foreign and security policy.

"There is no doubt that Turkey has acquired greater weight in the region as a result of the end of the Cold War and that must be taken account of," said a British official.

Pressure from the opposition Islamic Refah (Welfare) party and internal dissension in the government of Tansu Ciller, the Prime Minister, are rendering uncertain any predictions of the future map of Turkish politics. Mrs Ciller's centre-right True Path party has said it will seek a new coalition to rule until elections are due in 1996.

The government faces upheaval because its junior coalition partner, the Social Democrat Populist Party, plans a merger with another party - a move that could cost Mr Karayalcin, a Social Democrat, his job.