On the eve of a crucial summit that may determine the outcome of Turkey's 41-year campaign for European Union membership, Brussels has mulled fresh conditions for Ankara to meet before accession talks could begin. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayipp Erdogan was sharply critical of proposed new criteria, cautioning the EU that it would be making a "historic mistake" if it rebuffed Turkey's membership bid.
Among the most sensitive draft conditions reportedly under consideration by the EU's Dutch presidency is a stipulation that Turkey recognize 10 countries -- including Cyprus, which joined the EU in May -- as members of the bloc before membership talks can begin. Such a move would amount to de facto recognition of Cyprus itself a difficult demand for Ankara to meet given its own support of the self-declared Turkish Cypriot state in the north of the island.
In a statement to the Turkish parliament on December 14, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul rejected recognition of Cyprus in any form while a peace deal for the island, divided between Turkish and Greek Cypriots since 1973, remains unsigned. "Turkey will not take any steps which would mean recognizing [Cyprus] directly or indirectly," Gul said.
What that will mean for Turkey's membership bid remains unclear, but already a lobbying campaign is underway to block the imposition of fresh EU conditions. Also in Ankara's sights: a suggestion for a so-called "privileged membership" as a fallback in case accession talks with Ankara fail. Removal of permanent caps on the free movement of Turkish workers within the EU is another goal.
Turkish and international media have reported Erdogan as telling EU envoys that Ankara will reject the EU if it offers membership with strings attached. "We have said on several occasions that we will not accept a decision that is not based on a perspective of full membership and which offers special status," Erdogan told members of his Justice and Development Party on December 14. "I believe the EU will not undersign a historic mistake which will weaken its own foundations and will make a decision in line with Turkey's expectations."
Erdogan and Gul are scheduled to fly to Brussels on Wednesday for last-minute talks with EU leaders ahead of the summit, which is scheduled to begin December 16. A final decision on Turkey's membership bid widely expected to be affirmative should be made public the next day.
Obstacles beyond the criteria under consideration by the EU presidency could hamper Turkey's accession efforts. Critics within the EU believe that attempting to integrate a Muslim majority country such as Turkey with a relatively poor population of 70 million could cause excessive turmoil. Of particular concern is what low-cost Turkish workers would mean for the EU's moribund labor markets.
France has been perhaps the most outspoken opponent of EU membership for Turkey. As part of Turkey's membership negotiations, the French government has announced that it might consider questioning Turkey about the Ottoman Empire's 1915-1917 mass killing of roughly 1.5 million Armenians. In announcing French intentions on December 14, Foreign Minister Michel Barnier described the Ottoman action as "genocide," a controversial term likely to further spark Erdogan's ire. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. French President Jacques Chirac planned to make a televised address on December 15 to explain his support for Turkey's accession, but has promised that France would hold a national referendum on the issue once membership talks with Ankara were completed. Meanwhile, Austria has proposed that EU leaders make clear to Turkey that membership talks will not have a guaranteed outcome.
Ankara is already smarting from a series of conditions attached to an EU progress report on Turkey's membership bid, released October 6. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In its report, the European Commission said it needed more proof of Turkey's commitment to reforms before it could wholeheartedly endorse Ankara's accession to the bloc. A monitoring system was also proposed to track Turkey's progress in ongoing legal and human rights reforms as a condition for membership talks. In the past five years, Turkey has already undergone a series of fast-track reforms to bring its legal code, minority policies and political institutions in line with European standards.
Returning from a trip to Brussels on December 10, Erdogan reasserted the claim that the EU is discriminating against Turkey. "No other country had to wait 41 years at the door of the EU. We have fulfilled all the criteria, but despite this Europeans are hesitating."
Turkey has made full membership in the EU a main foreign policy goal since it signed an association agreement, known as the Ankara Agreement, with the bloc in 1963. A customs union agreement followed 33 years later, and in 1999, Turkey was declared an official candidate for EU membership and asked to fulfill a set of criteria, known as the Copenhagen Criteria, to bring the country in line with EU political norms. The European Commission's progress report paved the way for the final decision on Turkey's membership bid at this week's summit. Even if accession talks begin, however, full EU membership could take another decade, making Turkey's EU campaign a half-century journey.
Meanwhile, in response to the conditions sought by Brussels, Turkey has set down its own criteria. Erdogan has stated that Ankara expects full membership talks without additional conditions to come out of the December 16-17 summit. A concrete date for talks to begin in 2005 is also anticipated. Some Turkish media had reported that the EU may decide instead to hold an intergovernmental conference in the second half of 2005 to decide on a start date for talks to begin after an initial, six-month monitoring process.
Erdogan has rejected any additional political conditions not already included in the Copenhagen criteria, and argued that placing permanent limitations on Turkish workers would be against EU law. The notion of "privileged partnership" a concept reportedly conceived by France and Austria was rejected "as a status that does not exist in the EU."
Nor has Erdogan hesitated at raising the possibility of terrorism as part of his pre-summit pressure campaign. If Turkey is not invited to join the EU, he warned the audience at the opening of Istanbul's Modern Art Museum on December 10, violence from Islamic terrorists could escalate. "There is nothing we can do if the EU feels that it can live with being simply a Christian club," Erdogan was quoted as saying by The Times of London, "but if these countries burn their bridges with the rest of the world, history will not forgive them."
Mevlut Katik is a London-based journalist and analyst. He is a former BBC correspondent and also worked for The Economist group.