Demands For More Reform By Turkey Lessen EU Membership Chances

By Dorian Jones

The European Commission's annual progress report on Turkish membership says Ankara has improved its handling of human rights issues and the Kurdish minority. But it says that a lot more work needs to be done for it to become an EU member. The report is being met with little enthusiasm in Turkey as doubts over its bid to become a member continues to grow.

The European Commission's annual progress report on Turkish membership said Ankara has made some improvements on handling of human rights but said Turkey needs to speed up reforms to boost its chances of joining the bloc.

The EU and Turkey started membership negotiations in 2005, but they have made little progress since, while France and Germany have expressed opposition to Turkey's bid.

The report's findings were welcomed by Ergemen Bagis, the cabinet minister responsible for Turkey's bid to join the EU.

He said the Democratic initiatives introduced by our government have been met with praise and he said the necessity of taking concrete steps alongside this wide ranging process is emphasized. He also said the steps such as Turkey's continuing dialogue with the non-muslim communities as well as its relationship with Armenia are all included in the report in positive terms.

But Professor Cengiz Aktar, head of European Union studies at Istanbul's Bachesehir University, says such reports from the commission are becoming just an academic exercise. "Total schizophrenia. On the one hand, Turkey is now moving and the government is moving with this Kurdish opening and this opening towards Armenia and many other things on its way. All is in line with the EU membership (requirements), and the negotiations are completely stalled. It is day and night. Europe is absent, the commission is there but the European Union member states are not there. They are not supporting Turkey in its endeavors," he said.

One area of contention between both sides involves Cyprus. A member of the European Union since 2004, Cyprus has no diplomatic relations with Turkey which invaded the island's northern third after a brief Greek inspired coup in 1974.

In its report, the EU executive arm said Turkey made no progress in normalizing relations with Cyprus, adding that it was urgent that Ankara open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic.

kinikliogluBut Suat Kiniklioglu, spokesman for the Turkish parliamentary foreign affairs committee, says Turkey won't do so until the EU honors it commitment to Turkish Cypriots. "Our policy is conditioned. The European Union has told us that direct trade with Turkish Cyprus would be established. That did not happen. As long that does not happen, there is no way we are going to open the ports to Greek Cyprus," he said.

Brussels had indicated that it would lift the embargo if Turkish Cypriots voted in favor of a U.N.-sponsored unification plan. They did, but the Greeks rejected it.

The row over the ports could reach a head at the end of this year. Under a protocol signed by Turkey, the country risks having the talks suspended by the EU unless it opens its ports to Greek Cyprus by December.

Richard Howitt of the European Parliament's Committee on Turkey warns that Ankara is in danger of throwing away all the good work it has achieved so far. "I warned them that there isn't too much ambiguity. I would argue no ambiguity in that legal text agreed by the council ministers. So, don't underestimate the threat of the talks being suspended altogether," he said.

But analysts say such a threat does not carry the weight it once did in Turkey. Professor Aktar of Bachesehir University says the rapid progress of EU applicant Croatia only adds to Turkish resentment. The report gave no entry date for Croatia, but reports say the former Yugoslav state could become the EU's 28th member in 2012 after ratification of its accession treaty. "Croatia, who started the negotiation process the same day as Turkey, will probably will be ready by the end of 2010 to become a member. whereas Turkey needs over 10 years to be ready at this pace. And they are slowly losing Turkey," he said.

There have been efforts within the EU to dilute the membership talks and redirect the cooperation between Turkey and the bloc to something less than full membership. Turkey has seen this as a snub and reform has not proceeded as fast as many want.