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Turkey warns on Europe deal

Customs union with the EU is crucial, the Foreign Minister tells Tony Barber
Ankara - Turkey's Foreign Minister, Coskun Kirca, has a message for members of the European Parliament intending to block a customs-union agreement between Turkey and the European Union: "If there is a negative vote, the great majority of Turkish public opinion will interpret it as a hostile act towards Turkey."

Public opinion is much in favour of the customs union now, said Mr Kirca. "The only political party against it is the [pro-Islamist] Welfare Party. Only the fundamentalists could benefit from a negative vote."

The EU and Turkey signed the customs-union accord last March, but final approval lies with the European Parliament, which is expected to vote on 14 December. Many MEPs, especially those in the Socialist group, the parliament's largest bloc, argue that the agreement should not take effect until Turkey improves its human-rights record, particularly the treatment of its Kurdish minority.

A senior EU diplomat here believes rejection of the customs union could have such serious consequences for Turkey's political stability that the European Parliament would be unlikely to vote no. If informal soundings suggested that the customs union might be defeated, it would be more likely the Parliament would find an excuse to delay the vote, he said.

The new coalition government of Tansu Ciller, the Prime Minister, has taken steps to answer the European Parliament's concerns, notably by amending Article 8 of the strict anti-terrorism law. Scores have been jailed under this article, which in effect prohibits all public criticism of the government's Kurdish policies. The Turkish parliament on Friday accepted changes that pave the way for the release of intellectuals, lawyers and politicians convicted for publicly demanding greater rights for the Kurds.

But recent court cases that have raised doubts in the European Parliament over the government's sincerity. A newspaper columnist, Ahmet Altan, received a suspended prison sentence of 20 months for writing a satirical article on the Kurdish issue, and an American reporter for Reuters news agency, Aliza Marcus, has been brought to trial for her coverage of the Kurdish insurgency in south-eastern Turkey. Last week, two jailed Kurdish MPs were released - but the appeal court upheld sentences of 15 years for four others.

After Turkey sent 35,000 troops into northern Iraq last March to attack bases of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), there was little doubt that a majority in the European Parliament would refuse to ratify the customs union. Now, however, some of Turkey's most prominent critics in the Socialist and Green groups are attracted by the argument that approval of the customs union may be the best way of encouraging reform in the country.

The agreement offers Turkey the closest possible links with the EU short of full membership. Outside the Welfare Party, most political parties support the customs union. Businessmen, too, see tremendous opportunities in becoming integrated into the European market. Those familiar with Western thinking are aware that the Turkish state's approach to the Kurdish question does little but harm to Turkey's international image.

But politicians, obsessed with the idea that there is no Kurdish problem except one of PKK terrorism, stiffen at the suggestion that Turkey should modify its Kurdish policies in response to European and American criticism. "Turkey's security is not going to be decided by certain American and European politicians,'' said Mr Kirca."We say yes to dialogue, but we won't put up with diktats."