Turkey wins long battle for EU free trade deal

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From an impromptu party in the foreign ministry to broad smiles of triumph from the Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, Turkey celebrated the European Parliament's assent yesterday to a long-awaited free trade pact that both sides hope will put Muslim Turkey in a Western orbit.

After months in which diplomats wondered if the vote would even take place because of European reservations about Turkey's human rights record, the parliament in Strasbourg voted 343 to 149, with 36 abstentions, to allow the customs union to go ahead from 1 January.

"A new horizon has opened for Turkey. We are now ready to make a giant step forward," said Mrs Ciller, who had pushed through just enough laws to persuade MEPs of her intention to continue democratic reforms.

Turkish and Western diplomats who had fought for the pact over 32 years were delighted, too, although one European ambassador wrily said he hoped the promises for the future were "not like Turkish traffic lights, more for decoration than any signal of which direction you can go."

But some changes will be real. Europe already accounts for half of Turkey's trade. The figures are set to rise fast as Turkish exports to Europe increase, especially of textiles, and European imports grow as duties of 10 to 40 per cent disappear. Turkey also will adopt a common customs tariff with Europe. The commission will give some 375 million ecu (pounds 310m) over five years, and further loans worth about 2bn ecu are expected as well.

The European stamp of approval also will tempt new investment into one of Europe's lowest wage areas. New patent, competition and other laws that were a condition of customs union have already attracted big companies keen to exploit Turkey's position on the crossroads between Europe and the Middle East, as well as the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

Even so, Pauline Green, president of the Socialist Group, said many voted yes "with sorrow, with heavy hearts and without enthusiasm". And just as the reluctant Europeans hedged their co-operation round with calls for peace talks with the Kurdish rebels and a new initiative to reunite divided Cyprus, a minority of Turks had their own reservations too.

"The concessions, the sellout of Cyprus, the trampling underfoot of our national honour, this will all come later," wrote Emin Colasan, a columnist in the nationalist daily Hurriyet. "Europe will send its 'observers' and its demands. They will tell us what to do."

But most of Turkey's 65 million people - 72.6 per cent, according to the English-language Turkish Daily News - approve of the free-trade pact, believing it will bring lower prices, closer cooperation and better laws. Many are also determined on full membership of the European Union, even though Turkey's 1987 application was shelved in 1989 and now has been overtaken by Eastern Europe, Cyprus and even Malta.

"We will enter the European Union. We will go there with our mosques. We will make them accept us," said Mrs Ciller, who has made customs union a main plank of her campaign ahead of parliamentary elections which are to be held on 24 December.

Mosques may not be the first thing the Europeans want, but one reason they voted for customs union was to try to shore up the crumbling secular state system that has governed the Turkish republic since 1923.