The Turkish Question

Yesterday, in one of its boldest moves, the European Commission agreed to begin talks on admitting Turkey to the EU. But fears run deep of a country of 70 million straddling Europe and Asia

Rarely has the European Commission taken such an important step, and rarely has such a key debate been so one-sided. In more than four hours of discussions in a drab Brussels office block, just one of the 30 European Commissioners stood out against the start of membership talks with Turkey - a move likely to change the EU irrevocably.

With characteristic bluntness Frits Bolkestein, the outspoken Dutch Commissioner, cited a litany of human rights failings including torture, use of excessive force, lack of religious freedom and failure to protect women's rights. But, as one supporter put it, Mr Bolkestein was "the only one with any balls" and other sceptics declared themselves satisfied with concessions. By 1pm the European Commission president, Romano Prodi, had won overwhelming backing for one of the boldest moves ever envisaged by the EU.

Yesterday's formal recommendation urges EU leaders to begin accession negotiations with a mainly Muslim nation of 70 million people, many of whom live in poverty on the Asian landmass. Strict conditions have been placed on Ankara to allay fears in France, Germany and Austria, and the talks will take at least a decade. But, amid mounting fears of a clash of civilisations after 11 September, a political judgement was made that the dangers of rejecting Turkey's 40-year-old European aspirations exceed the huge challenges of absorbing it.

Born from the ashes of the Second World War, the EU has already assumed the legacy of the Cold War by admitting eight ex-Communist states. Now it faces the task of averting a bigger global conflict still.

Two men have helped shape yesterday's deal, which still needs to be agreed by the EU's heads of government in December. The first is the Turkish premier, Recep Tayyip Erdogan who leads the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party and who has been in power since 2002.

Once imprisoned for reciting an Islamic poem, Mr Erdogan was originally viewed with some suspicion in Brussels, but EU officials now accept that Ankara only really embarked on reform when he came to power. As one official put it, there has been "a fantastic, revolutionary, change in Turkey over two years".

The other main protagonist is the EU's enlargement Commissioner, Günther Verheugen, a former centre-left minister and committed supporter of Ankara's EU membership bid. It was up to him to wring sufficient change out of Turkey, to convince sceptical Europeans that Ankara can match EU human rights standards and place enough conditions on talks to reassure European public opinion that membership will not be a political fix.

At the same time he needed to make clear to Ankara that it can attain the prize that has eluded it for four decades.

When Mr Verheugen swept through Turkey last month on a fact-finding trip, an entire country held its breath. Traders on the Istanbul stock exchange hung on his every word. An army of cameramen stalked him. In Diyarbakir, regional capital of the mainly Kurdish southeast, he was greeted by the sight of a city festooned with billboards proclaiming "Citizen Verheugen! Welcome to Greater Europe!".

He even flew to the tiny mountain hamlet of Tuzla, a remote enclave of some 30 squat huts. Sipping tea with a group of villagers, he asked them whether they wanted to join Europe. "Absolutely!" they chorused, vehemently. "We want a better life". Mr Verheugen appeared taken aback by the strength of their response. "I feel under pressure," he joked. "You have such high expectations!"

Commission documents issued yesterday do not gloss over Turkey's weaknesses. The country's gross domestic product per head is 27 per cent of the EU average (including the new, mainly ex-Communist countries), and the employment rate of those of working age is just 45.5 per cent. Worse, "numerous cases of ill-treatment including torture continue to occur". To attain the EU's miniumum human rights standards (the "Copenhagen criteria") further work needs to be done on these areas as well as "freedom of expression, freedom of religion, women's rights, trade union rights and minority rights".

It adds, however, that torture is no longer systematic and the government's policy toward it is one of "zero tolerance". Because EU membership negotiations will stretch until at least 2015, the Commission argues that such practices can be eliminated by the time Turkey joins.

With a proper legal framework now almost completely in place, the country "sufficiently fulfils the political criteria" to justify the opening of talks.

Mr Verheugen delivered several concessions to concerns in France, Germany and Austria. The negotiations, say yesterday's recommendation, should be "an open-ended process whose outcome cannot be guaranteed beforehand". In other words Turkey might never make it. Were Ankara to renege on human rights obligations or lapse back into authoritarianism, the EU could pull an "emergency brake" and suspend talks.

In addition, Mr Verheugen added a controversial new clause to ease fears of a new wave of immigration sweeping into the EU. His recommendation says that a "permanent safeguard clause can be considered", suggesting that EU countries should be able to block Turkish immigration if there is a sudden influx. The idea is vague and such a permanent arrangement would be open to legal challenge since it would breach the fundamental EU principle of free movement of labour.

But it might just help get the idea of starting membership talks through its next, big hurdle: EU member- states.

Heads of government meet in December, under pressure after the recommendation to set a date for membership talks to start. Any one country can veto or delay negotiations. In France where the ruling centre-right party is split on Turkish accession despite support from the president, Jacques Chirac, some want to delay the start of talks with Turkey until after a referendum on the EU constitution, because they fear the two issues will become intertwined.

But Mr Verheugen's "safeguard clause" could prove a big help in France. Though public opinion is opposed to Turkish membership, the fear of immigration is cited as the biggest factor. If that can be removed from the equation, public concern may subside.

Opposition remains strong and German critics yesterday called for a special partnership with Turkey, rather than membership. Pointing to the projections of Turkey's growing population, the Belgian MEP Philip Claeys MEP argued: "The largest member-state of the EU will not even be a European country".

But Mr Verheugen was eloquent on the risks of stalling Turkey's bid. Membership negotiations are, he said, the "only guarantee" that Ankara will continue its move away from an authoritarian past towards Europe's democratic, pluralistic and liberal values.

Without talks there is a "clear risk" that reform in Turkey would grind to a halt, said Mr Verheugen, adding: "We need the reform process in order to see Turkey firmly anchored into the western world". In other words, in the aftermath of 11 September, Europe's most senior politicians believe they have no alternative but to try to embrace their Turkish neighbour.

For more than 40 years Ankara has been knocking at Europe's door but the actions of Osama bin Laden may have given it the key.

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