By Miguel Angel Benedicto (for Safe Democracy)

Miguel Angel Benedicto discusses the progress of negotiations for Turkey‘s membership into the European Union and the conditions that the European Parliament has set on Ankara. Despite Ankara’s battle against torture, corruption, and the violation of women’s rights, 48 percent of Europeans are against Turkey’s integration into the European Union. In Benedicto‘s opinion, the interruption in negotiations could endanger the establishment of ties between the East and the West. Will it be possible to salvage the almost inevitable train wreck?

Miguel Angel Benedicto is a journalist and consultant specialized in European Affairs. He directs “Facil Consultores” and presides over the association “Ideas and Debate” based in Spain. He is the coauthor of “Europa a Debate. Veinte anos despues (1986-2006)” and “La Mayor Operacion de Solidaridad de la Historia”. With his three degrees in Law, Journalism, and Political Science, he is a teacher of postgraduate studies at the University Complutense in Madrid and the University King Juan Carlos.

NOT MUCH REMAINS TO CLARIFY THE RELATIONSHIP between the European Union and Turkey. On November 8th, the European Commission will make public its report on the advances of recent negotiations to integrate Turkey into the EU. The document is extremely important. If its conclusion is negative, negotiations between both sides will fall apart, and after years of efforts to be given membership, Turkey will be derailed.

The question now is, what should take place to avoid a possible train wreck? In September, the European Parliament approved a report that counseled the Turkish Government to put into practice a number of measures to strengthen human rights: among them securing the freedom of expression and religion, and opening ports and airports to Cyprus before November. Were Ankara to successfully implement the reforms, the Commission promised its report would be positive.

Let us analyze the problems that the European Parliament has put forward on the table:

The Turkish government must modify Article 301 of its penal code to avoid the possibility of persecuting intellectuals for criticisms made against Turkish national identity, the Turkish government, or institutions like the judiciary, the army, or the police.

The article has been applied arbitrarily to criminalize a wide gambit of critical opinions contrary to the official viewpoint or the dominant ideology. But, judgments rarely end up with prison sentences. Court cases for improper speech generally result in fines and even acquittals. Even so, the mere possibility of being denounced and accused –many times by nationalist groups from the extreme right– has a chilling effect on the free speech of intellectuals opposed to the current regime. In any case, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced after the acquittal of writer Elif Shafak this last September, that he was going to put into place a legal reform to put an end to the trials.

The new foundational law should make it impossible to discriminate against non-Muslim, religious minorities, Greek or Armenian, regarding their rights to property, religious practice, and formation.

Also, the Muslim minorities like the Alevis, who number between 15 and 20 million, should not have any restrictions on the establishment of their places of worship, or the reception of financial aid from the State.

In July of 2005, Turkey signed a protocol in Ankara that broadened the customs union between Turkey and the EU to the ten new member states of the Union. In an additional declaration, however, Turkey made clear that this agreement did not imply the country’s recognition of Cyprus.

The Turkish Government has resisted opening its ports and airports to the island. Ankara has as one of its conditions for adherence to the EU, the opening of commerce with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, under Turkish rule since 1974. The European Commissioner of Expansion, Olli Rehn, meanwhile, has alerted Turkey that its refusal to recognize Cyprus will result sooner or later in the train wreck of negotiations. Cyprus has threatened to use its veto power if Turkey is admitted.

These were the main problems stressed by the European Union as necessary for Turkish membership. Also essential, however, is the adoption of a productive strategy to deal with the terrorist attacks that have occurred in the southeast of Turkey throughout the year. The strategy should confront the economic, social, and cultural needs of the area where a Kurdish majority suffers the worst poverty and unemployment in the country.

The EU also signaled the need to reconcile with neighboring countries, like Armenia, and warned that the army will not be able to interfere in the functioning of justice and the political agenda.

According to information from the Eurobaromter -published in July – 48 percent of Europeans are against the entrance of Turkey into the EU. This percentage spikes drastically in Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Greece, and France.

The French Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and the German President Angela Merkel are arguing that Turkey should be given a privileged relationship with the EU instead of becoming a member with full rights. For Commissioner Rhen, these demands damage the credibility of the European Union, and stall Turkey’s political reforms. Now that the Turks have the customs union, belong to NATO, and benefit from communitarian programs, all that is left is to offer them a membership to the European Union, provided that they agree to the Copenhagen criteria. Discrimination against them now, with ten new member states already accepted, like Bulgaria or Romania, would be untenable.

In the beginning of October, French President Jacques Chirac demanded that Ankara recognize the Armenian genocide as a precondition for its entrance into the European Union. The French Parliament is also debating a law to penalize the denial of the Armenian genocide with a prison sentence. These demands have done nothing but erode the popular support in Turkey for the European Union. Public approval of the EU fell from 70 to 54 percent and could cause a resurgence of nationalism in the country. The Eurobarometer, meanwhile, indicates that only 22 percent of Turks are against integration.

The weeks left before November 8th will be decisive for relations between the European Union and Turkey, whose future is up in the air. The long-standing conflict with Cyprus, and the role of the army (which is the most valued institution in the country) are complex issues, and cannot be solved in a day.

Both sides must be able to show their capacity to negotiate and make advances in their reforms with mutual concessions in order to avoid the train wreck of the talks. The suspension of integration negotiations, after the success that Ankara has had in fighting torture and corruption, and in strengthening women’s rights, would be counterproductive for the establishment of ties between the West and the East.

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