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Europe must not turn its back on Turkey at such a pivotal moment

   
OpinionsNothing would provide a greater incentive to speed up human rights reform than a date for starting EU negotiations By Donald Macintyre 05 December 2002

A vivid painting in the British Ambassador's house in Ankara depicts one of his early 18th century predececessors, Charles Wortley Montague, paying court to the Grand Vizier in Constantinople. The Briton is perched uncomfortably on a plain, hard-backed chair, looking up respectfully at the Sultan's chief minister, who is relaxing cross legged on a luxuriant settee. There is not a shred of doubt who is the supplicant and who the man with the power. Turkey no longer presides over a great empire. Yet it's hard not to see a parallel, however imperfect, in the stream of international visitors sitting at the feet of her new leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Suddenly everyone wants to know the man whose Islamist party won a landslide last month against a coalition fatally weakened by corruption and economic collapse. Most prominent this week among the suitors, of course, has been the US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, here to plead for military co-operation in a possible war in Iraq about which Turkey remains distinctly nervous. Turkey, in turn, is already driving a hard bargain, well on the way to securing guarantees of hundreds of millions of US dollars and against a new Kurdish state emerging in Northern Iraq if Saddam Hussein is toppled. Nor is that all. For the hawkish Mr Wolfowitz has been at his most vocal in supporting Turkey's most cherished foreign policy goal membership of the EU. It's tempting for some in Europe to think that because Mr Wolfowitz is pushing this so hard and because the British Government, the US's principal ally on Iraq, are the leading EU champions of Turkish entry, that there must be something wrong with the idea or that it is merely a short term ramp to get round a difficult military corner. Tempting and utterly wrong. The stakes are much higher than that. While it may be hard to admit, Mr Wolfowitz happens to be right on this. The decisions the Copenhagen EU summit will take at the end of next week on Turkey may prove pivotal to relations between what we call the West and the Muslim world. This is a historic moment and not just for the EU. First, a little detail. Thanks to the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, not to mention Lord Hannay, the Government's special envoy on Cyprus, there has never been a better opportunity since the mid-Seventies and may never be again to settle the too long neglected conflict between the two peoples of that bitterly divided island. The UN-brokered deal, which offers Greek and Turkish Cypriots two autonomous sectors within a lightly federal structure, has much to offer both groups. The hope, by no means certain of fulfilment, is that with the support of Greece and Turkey the two local communities can be persuaded next week to sign up to its principles. As it happens both Turkey and Greece, as the government of each well realises, have an incentive to persuade, respectively, the stubborn Rauf Denktash and his Greek Cypriot counterpart George Clerides to sign the crucial pre-amble to the agreement next week. For Turkey, an end to the long running problem would remove one more excuse for the EU to block its application for membership. And a progressive Greek government which actually wants good political and economic relations with the big Eastern neighbour with which it has quarrelled for so long, will support Turkey's EU application provided Cyprus can be settled. But Cyprus has now become inextricably linked with a much bigger picture. It's a near-certainty that the issue of Cyprus and that of a Turkish EU application date will go to the wire in the familiar nothing-is-agreed-until-everything-is-agreed mode of EU summits. For Turkey has some leverage here, not least because the EU would dearly like her to allow the use of NATO command and control assets for its own defence initiatives. Which it won't do until Cyprus is settled. And so on. Confused? If only, in reality, it were that simple. For the enthusiasm for Turkish EU entry is, to put it politely, mixed. French opposition to the idea was perhaps best summed up by the sub-text of Valery Giscard D'Estaing's blast against it, namely that Turkey was neither Christian nor European. The Germans deeply dislike the idea of a country larger than itself dominating the EU. And the Dutch, their politics now contaminated by the issue of race, are scarcely less opposed. What's more they have a ready made excuse to hand. The human rights record of Turkey for a century or more has been abysmal. Routine torture in its prisons, massacres of Turkish Kurds, the "disappearances" of intellectuals, journalists and dissident politicians, are only part of it. OK, Mr Erdogan has started to clean up Turkey's act, pushing through an impressive raft of measures including abolition of the death penalty designed to meet the EU's membership criteria. But can it yet be really time to begin negotiations on joining the modern liberal democracies of Europe? Yes, it can. It's true that Mr Erdogan has a good deal more to do. Measures, for example, to retry, in accordance with the European court of Human Rights judgements, five Kurdish politicians wrongly gaoled and expelled from the parliament have been deferred. Politically sensitive about upsetting secularists, he has yet to readmit students banned for agitating for the use of the Kurdish language because that will unleash similar agitation by those wanting to wear traditional headscarves. Immunity from corruption prosecutions for public servants has yet to be ended. And so on. But here's the point. It is just an excuse. Nothing, but nothing, would provide a greater incentive for the Turkish regime to speed up its human right reforms than the a clear date for starting EU negotiations. It's easily forgotten that that's how Spain and Portugal's newly democratic regimes abolished the judicial institions which had survived from their fascist predecessors. Or how more recently say Slovakia, now an uncontested EU candidate ended most of its human rights abuses. Maybe it will take a decade or more for Turkey to be admitted. But for the EU to turn its back on the new government now is the one way to slow its progress on human rights. It would also mean broken promises by the EU which, as Jack Straw has repeatedly pointed out in Turkey this week, promised three years ago in Helsinki to treat Turkey as a candidate like any other. But above all it would be to reject co-existence with the Muslim world just when it is most desperately needed, to make a poisonous reality of Samuel Huntingdon's clash of civilisations. For every Giscard, luckily, there is a Michel Rocard. Last week the French socialist wrote in Le Monde that rejecting Turkey would be an "extremely grave blunder with regard to the 10 million Muslims who live in Europe and even more towards the Muslim community worldwide". As Rocard said, the key problem is whether one billion Muslims can accept secular institutions. Rejecting Turkey would be to reject a Muslim country that has done so for 50 years. Amen to that. It's make your mind up time for the EU next week. Can it meet the challenge of the timess?
  

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