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050602|The Economist |Turkey and the EU: Reason to worry
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Turkey and the EU
Reason to worry


June 2nd 2005 | ANKARA
From The Economist print edition


The country with most to lose from the EU referendums may be Turkey

WHAT do the French and Dutch rejections of the European Union
constitution imply for Turkey's hopes of joining? If one believes the
country's political leaders, nothing. "This result has nothing to do
with Turkey's candidacy, we will continue on our path with the same
enthusiasm," the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told
parliament this week. His rhetoric was echoed by EU officials. And in
theory they are right.

The constitution makes no reference to Turkey's membership. In France
(as in some other anti-Turkey countries, notably Austria) voters have
been promised the chance to stop Turkey joining in a separate referendum
on further enlargement, when the time comes. Moreover, last December's
decision by EU leaders to promise Turkey the start of membership talks
on October 3rd was a political one that can be changed only by consensus
of all 25 EU members. Some optimists even venture to suggest that the
defeat of the constitution could pave the way for a looser EU that it
would be easier for Turkey to fit into.


Yet the reality is more worrying for Turkey. The French and Dutch noes
may be "the EU's internal problem", as Mr Erdogan claims. But they also
reflect growing hostility around Europe to further enlargement of the
EU-and, specifically, to the idea of taking in poor, big and Muslim
Turkey. There is also a good chance that Germany's opposition Christian
Democrats (CDU) will win the election expected in September. The CDU
leader, Angela Merkel, is firmly opposed to Turkey's membership and has
lobbied instead for a "privileged partnership" that has been roundly
rejected by the Turks. Her hostility to full membership for Turkey is
shared by France's Nicolas Sarkozy, a would-be presidential candidate in
2007.

Against this gloomy background, the wisest course for Turkey, according
to the EU ambassador to Ankara, Hansjörg Kretschmer, is to ignore the
ructions in Europe and focus on implementing the sweeping reforms that
earned it the precious October date for talks. In one hopeful sign, Mr
Erdogan last week appointed Ali Babacan, his young and pragmatic economy
minister, to head the EU negotiations. Turkey is also about to sign a
protocol extending its customs union with the EU to the ten new members
that joined last year, including Cyprus.

This week a long-delayed new penal code came into effect. But despite
such radical provisions as making marital rape a crime, the code also
contains several controversial articles-for example one that allows long
prison terms for journalists who attack the Turkish military presence in
northern Cyprus or describe as "genocide" the mass slaughter of
Armenians during the first world war.

There are, indeed, disturbing signs that Mr Erdogan may be pandering to
a recent upsurge in nationalism that is being fanned both by
anti-Turkish sentiment in Europe and by the country's hawkish generals,
whose power may be eroded by EU reforms. Besides continued police
harassment of Christians and other minorities, last month an appeal
court in Ankara upheld the banning of Turkey's biggest teachers' union
because it had said that the country's 14m Kurds should be able to
educate their children in their mother tongue. Turkish academics had to
cancel a conference to debate the Armenian tragedy after the justice
minister, Cemil Cicek, accused them of "knifing Turkey in the back".

Mr Cicek's outburst, concluded one senior EU diplomat, was "confirmation
that the government no longer believes in the EU process." That view may
be exaggerated, but there is disillusion with the EU among Mr Erdogan's
conservative base. One example is perceived European indifference to
restrictions on the Islamic headscarf. It was surely with his
conservative base in mind that Mr Erdogan last week introduced
legislation to reduce penalties for those who run underground courses to
teach the Koran. The move brought renewed charges from Turkey's fierce
secularists that Mr Erdogan's real intention is to move the country
closer to an Islamic theocracy, and not to the EU. Turkey's many enemies
in Europe would surely take pleasure in that.

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