Walker's World: The Turkish question

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Chief International Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Nov. 3 (UPI) -- Shortly before German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer flew to Washington this week to begin repairing the ugly breach in relations with the Bush administration, the prestigious Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper published a front-page exclusive story.

It claimed that in a letter to the German government, the White House had listed three American conditions to heal the rift. Berlin should back the Bush administration's policy on Iraq; make its airspace and bases available; and use Berlin's best efforts to speed Turkey's accession into the European Union.


The story was officially denied; there was no letter, and the White House knows better than to ask for direct military support on Iraq when Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had won re-election in September by vowing never to join such an American "adventure." That, along with a few gratuitous comments from other German politicians comparing President George Bush to Adolf Hitler and the Roman Emperor Augustus, was what caused the row in the first place.


But the story contained a very large nugget of fact. There have been constant consultations between Washington and Berlin as the diplomats try to get relations between these two old allies back to normal, including Germany's offer to take over the Afghan peacekeeping force from Jan. 1. And the United States has made it clear that it would very much like the Schroeder government to help the Turks, by persuading the rest of the EU to agree on a conditional date for the start of Turkey's accession negotiations.

Three interesting events took place Tuesday. In a phone call to Turkey's President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, mainly covering Iraq, Bush made a point of stressing his support for Turkey's bid to join the EU. The same day, Turkey's foreign minister was in Berlin, being assured by Fischer that Germany "would do its utmost" to support Turkey's EU membership. And Schroeder told Denmark's Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, current president of the EU Council, that Germany favored Turkey getting a date at the December summit, where Rasmussen will be host.

This is not the first time White House pressure for Turkey, justifiably seen in Washington as a loyal and a valued NATO ally in a strategic location that needs to be locked into stable Western institutions, has been exerted on the Europeans. During the Cardiff summit of 1998, President Bill Clinton woke up the Greek prime minister with a phone call urging him to lift a veto on Turkish negotiations. During the EU's Helsinki summit in December of 1999, Clinton cajoled them into formally accepting Turkey as a candidate for membership -- the first crucial step of what can be a very, very long process. (Turkey first applied to join back in 1965.)


Now that it has candidate status, in theory nothing can stop Turkey's eventual membership, so long as it meets the Copenhagen criteria (requirements on human rights and democracy) and completes the accession procedure. This means overhauling the Turkish state bureaucracy to meet the requirements of the acquis communautaire, the EU's 80,000-page administrative rulebook.

In fact, the bureaucrats of Brussels can spin this out for a very long time. They will be tempted to so, because Turkey is mainly Islamic, and its birthrate will probably make it the most populous country in the EU by 2010. It could thus claim the largest share of seats in the EU parliament, while being the poorest country. This will impose strains on the EU budget, and fundamentally change the character of what has hitherto been a white, prosperous and Christian club.

Moreover, once Turkey joins, the EU would suddenly find itself sharing borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria, this becoming intimately involved in the tangled affairs of the Middle East-Persian Gulf region. The EU's nervousness at the implications of Turkish membership is understandable, but looks like being doomed.

The EU's first line of defense, the Copenhagen criteria, is crumbling fast. Turkey has put a moratorium on the death penalty, banned torture, overhauled its judicial regime, and appears genuinely to be making a strong effort to install democratic institutions. The moderate Islamic AK (Justice and development) party looks likely to win Sunday's Turkish election, and this time the ever-watchful army is showing no signs of its traditional anti-Islamist intervention to stop it taking office. If the soldiers stay in their barracks, that would count strongly toward establishing Turkey's democratic credentials.


The EU's second line of defense, the traditional Greek-Turkish hostility, is also crumbling, thanks to the far-sighted Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, who has emerged as Turkey's staunchest champion in Europe.

The third line of defense, German nervousness at bringing in a country that already provides the bulk of Germany's immigrants, is visibly bending under American pressure, and Schroeder is finding that pressure much harder to resist as he tries to restore relations with the White House after those offensive remarks during his re-election campaign. And with the United States needing Turkish backing for its planned assault on Iraq, that American pressure is not going to subside anytime soon.

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