With a decision looming by the end of the year on whether or not to start accession talks, Turkey's drive to gain European Union membership is now in a critical phase. According to some European analysts, Ankara's recent moves to improve its civil society image have made a favorable impression on EU decision-makers.
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul recently vowed that Ankara would "provide the EU with no excuse" to exclude Turkey. The Turkish government has backed up Gul's rhetoric with a series of moves that should help Turkey meet to so-called Copenhagen criteria, a set of civil rights standards that the EU has established as a pre-condition for the opening of membership talks.
The latest Turkish initiatives concerned the country's decades-long struggle against Kurdish nationalists [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Rights abuses associated with the Kurds' armed struggle to establish a homeland have been a source of contention in the Turkey-EU dialogue. On June 9, Turkish authorities released four Kurdish activists were released from prison pending appeals of 1994 convictions. The EU had contended that the prominent activists had not received fair trials. In addition, Turkey's state television channel TRT recently aired broadcasts in Kurdish.
In early May, the Turkish parliament passed constitutional amendments that appeared tailored to satisfy the EU's Copenhagen criteria. Perhaps the most prominent change was a decision to abolish the military's role as watchdog in the sphere of higher education. Another amendment guaranteed that women would enjoy the same rights as men.
Ankara's recent action has drawn praise from top EU officials. Nevertheless, Turkey's EU bid has encountered strong resistance in recent months from some members, in particular France. Some political analysts contend that the flurry of Turkish moves is swaying opinion in favor of Ankara's accession. Steven Everts of the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think tank, told EurasiaNet; "There has been a ground shift in political elite opinion over benefits and costs of Turkish membership in the EU. Political momentum favors taking a decision in December to open negotiations with Turkey."
Ultimately, Everts added, the decision on whether to begin accession talks will be a political one, based on several criteria, including Turkey's efforts to fulfil the Copenhagen criteria. Even if a decision is made to move forward on a political level, there is "a great deal of effort to be made to erode hostility towards the Turkish membership amongst the European public opinion," Everts cautioned.
Influential EU officials have spoken out recently on the political necessity of embracing Turkey, making vague references to the growing tension between the West and the Muslim world, generated in large part by the US conduct of its war against terrorism. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. During a May 24 speech at Oxford University, EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten said; "how we [the EU] handle Turkey's aspirations for EU membership" was one of four policy areas that could potentially aggravate tension between the West and Islam.
He urged the EU to hold out its hand to Turkey. Regardless of the outcome, it would cost the EU little, in political terms, to set a formal date for the start of negotiations with Ankara, Patten suggested. "We cannot help but be conscious of the symbolism, at this time, of reaching a hand to a country whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim," he said. At the same time, Patten acknowledged that Turkish membership in the EU "may well be politically difficult to envisage and administratively gruelling to manage."
An EU report on Turkey's efforts to comply with accession pre-conditions is due to be completed this fall. The report is expected to exert considerable influence over the EU's December decision. Some observers believe opponents of Turkish membership in the EU to may try to raise the issue of implementation in an attempt to force a December rejection.
Concern lingers over whether the Turkish laws and constitutional changes adopted recently can be effectively implemented. According to an Anatolia news agency report June 10, a group of prominent international rights organizations, including Amnesty International, issued a statement in which they welcomed "many of the legal reforms that have been introduced in the recent past." The statement, however, added; "concerns continue about shortcomings in current legislation and the implementation of the reforms."
Many Turks believe that lingering EU opposition to Turkish membership is rooted in prejudice against Islam. Even so, Everts said "the Turks need to develop a response to that [implementation factor]. They should say,
Mevlut Katik is a London-based journalist and analyst. He is a former BBC correspondent and also worked for The Economist group.