Turkish taunt to EU enrages allies in Bonn

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The European Union's relations with Turkey plunged into fresh trouble yesterday after an almost farcical diplomatic row between Germany and Turkey over a perceived Turkish insult to the EU.

Turkey's Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, told members of his ruling Welfare Party on Tuesday that EU leaders should "bow their heads" when visiting Turkey because of their failure to implement in full the terms of an EU-Turkish customs accord.

The remark infuriated Germany's Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, who was about to fly to Ankara to improve EU-Turkish relations. After coming close to cancelling his trip, he finally set off from Rome two hours late on Tuesday evening.

Speaking to German reporters in Ankara yesterday morning, Mr Kinkel could not have made it plainer that Mr Erbakan's comments still rankled. "No European will have to bow their head to Turkey in shame," he huffed.

The decline in EU-Turkish relations this year owes its origins partly to growing Turkish indignation about the EU's failure to carry out all aspects of the customs agreement, which came into effect last year. Millions of pounds in EU aid to Turkey, designed to help it overcome the initial effects of the customs union, have been blocked by Greece, Turkey's traditional rival, which shows no sign of relaxing its stance.

Turkey's hackles were also raised by a recent suggestion from the leaders of several EU Christian Democrat parties that, as an Islamic country, Turkey should never be allowed into the EU. For their part, some European governments were annoyed by Turkey's threat to block Nato expansion into Central Europe unless Turkey got its way on EU membership.

The row between Mr Kinkel and Mr Erbakan was a measure of how badly frayed EU-Turkish relations have become, since the German minister would normally be counted among those keen to cultivate closer ties. Even after yesterday's dispute, he was at pains to say: "Turkey belongs to Europe. The Turkish train remains on the main track, it will not be put on the side track."

However, he said human rights abuses, the Kurdish civil war in south- east Turkey and tensions in the Turkish-Greek relationship meant Turkey was not yet a suitable candidate for EU membership.

These difficulties, coupled with Turkey's large, expanding population and relative economic underdevelopment, make it likely that former Communist states, such as the Czech Republic and Poland, will join the EU before Turkey, although the Turks have been associate EU members since 1963.

Mr Erbakan's views on the EU have often seemed shaped by a desire less to join the club than to damn it as the bane of Turkish life. Before taking office last year as prime minister, he denounced the EU customs union as a form of "slavery to the Christian establishment".

His Foreign Minister, Tansu Ciller, of the conservative True Path party, is far more pro-European. But differences of style and political opinion between Mr Erbakan and Mrs Ciller have not improved the coherence of Turkish foreign policy.

German views on Turkey are influenced by the presence of 2 million Turks in Germany at a time when unemployment is at its highest level since the 1930s. Few politicians wish to court voters' wrath by supporting Turkish membership of the EU, which would imply an opportunity for millions more Turks to seek jobs in Germany.