TURKEY, EUROPEAN UNION A PROBLEMATIC BID FOR MEMBERSHIP

Monday Morning, Lebanon
Oct 3 2005

The fifteenth-century Topkapi Palace in Istanbul during a
thunderstorm. Will Turkey's membership bid be scuttled by deep-rooted
historical animosities?

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw: "Anchor Turkey in the West and
we gain a beacon of democracy and modernity, a country with a Muslim
majority, which will be a shining example across the whole of its
neighboring region"

Talks on Turkey's membership of the European Union were scheduled
to begin this week, but differences remain over whether the country
can ever actually join the bloc could yet torpedo membership. Four
decades after Ankara first knocked on the European club's door, the
negotiations -- likely to last at least a decade -- are scheduled
to begin in the sidelines of a meeting of EU foreign ministers
in Luxembourg this week. While few really expect the talks to be
called off, frantic diplomacy seems set to continue down to the wire,
battling to overcome resistance notably by Austria to the proposed
"negotiating framework" for the mega-haggle.

Specifically Vienna -- which openly opposes Turkey's entry bid --
wants the EU to offer Ankara the prospect of something other than
full EU membership as the formal aim of its talks.

That demand led Turkey -- no stranger to tough brinkmanship -- to
warn last week that it may stay away from the talks if it deems the
negotiating terms unsatisfactory.

"It is out of the question that we accept any formula or suggestion
other than full membership," Foreign Ministry spokesman Namik Tan
told reporters in Ankara.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw -- whose country is a staunch
supporter of Ankara's bid, and who currently holds the EU's presidency
-- also warned last week that not to go ahead with the talks would
be a disaster.

"It would now be a huge betrayal of the hopes and expectations of
the Turkish people... if, at this crucial time, we turned our back
on Turkey," he said.

Turkey first signed an association agreement with the EU's predecessor
in 1963, and has been a formal EU candidate since 1999.

Last December EU leaders gave Ankara a green light to start talks on
October 3.

But strains flared in July when Ankara, while signing an amended
customs accord with the EU, reaffirmed its refusal to recognize Cyprus,
one of 10 countries which joined the EU last year.

Last month EU states finally hammered out a formal response to that,
calling it regrettable and provocative, although in the end only asking
that Turkey recognize the Nicosia government before it actually joins
the EU.

But days before the talks were due to start, the negotiating framework
still remained unresolved. Amid the Austrian refusal to countenance
full membership, a meeting of foreign ministers was called for the
weekend preceding the opening of the formal talks.

While Austria remained tightlipped, observers suggested Vienna was
using the veiled threat of a veto on Turkey to push the EU to open
talks with Croatia, delayed since March due to lack of progress in
finding a key war crimes suspect.

Turkey meanwhile was playing hardball, saying it would only decide
whether to come to Luxembourg once it had seen what was on the table.

The EU-Turkey talks come amid clear public opposition to Turkey's
EU hopes: a Eurobarometer poll in July indicated that 52 percent
of Europeans are against offering EU entry to Turkey, with only 35
percent in favor.

But Britain's Straw, who would host the Luxembourg talks, reiterated
London's geopolitical argument for Turkish EU entry.

"Anchor Turkey in the West and we gain a beacon of democracy and
modernity, a country with a Muslim majority, which will be a shining
example across the whole of its neighboring region," he declared.

As the diplomatic activity continues, Turks appear to be losing their
enthusiasm for EU membership amid increasing doubts on whether their
mainly Muslim country will ever be welcome in the bloc and mounting
pressure on Ankara to tackle its most nationally explosive issues,
analysts say.

Ankara's four-decade drive to join the European Union has always
enjoyed strong public support, but the latest polls suggest a
significant drop as the country gears up for the accession talks.

A survey released in early September by the US-based German Marshall
Fund of some 1,000 Turks showed that only 63 percent believed EU
membership would be a good thing, compared to 73 percent last year.

The main reason for the sour mood is a mounting debate in Europe
on whether Turkey should actually become a member of the bloc,
and this is giving Turks the feeling they are being badly treated,
according to Cengiz Aktar, director of the EU Center at Istanbul's
Bahcesehir University.

Rejection of the EU constitution in referenda in France and the
Netherlands earlier this year, influenced in part by opposition to
Turkey's membership, has taken its toll on the euphoria in Turkey that
followed the EU's commitment at a December 17 summit in Brussels to
begin accession talks.

In Germany, conservative leader Angela Merkel, whose Christian Union
bloc narrowly won the September 18 general election and is aiming to
lead a ruling coalition, has long wanted to offer Turkey a "privileged
partnership" rather than full membership.

In France another political heavyweight, Nicolas Sarkozy, president
of the ruling UMP party and a possible successor to President Jacques
Chirac, argues against opening membership talks with Turkey for the
immediate future.

"These are not the expressions of new partnership but of new animosity
-- Turkey is presented a a bitter enemy of Europe," Aktar said. "This
has created a bitter and negative environment of which even the most
pro-EU circles in Turkey have had enough."

Adding to what appears to Turkey like a U-turn on the EU's commitment
is increasing pressure on Ankara to take steps many would consider
betraying the country's basic policies, said Cigdem Nas, of Marmara
University's European Community Institute.

Tensions have flared over the divided island of Cyprus since July,
when Turkey extended a customs union agreement to the bloc's 10
newest members, including Cyprus, but insisted the move did not
amount to recognition of the island's internationally-acknowledged
Greek Cypriot administration.

The EU hit back by insisting on proper recognition.

Another hot topic is the massacres during World War I of Armenians
under the Ottoman Empire, forerunner of the modern Turkish Republic.

Armenians claim up to 1.5 million of their people were slaughtered
in an Ottoman "genocide", a claim Turkey strongly rejects.

"Turkey is being gradually pushed into an internal settling of accounts
and this creates a backlash in a country where nationalism runs high
and the EU has come to symbolize all the foreign pressure on Ankara,"
Nas said.

The past few months have seen the rise of several new civic
organizations that take their names from armed resistance groups
that fought against Allied occupation during Turkey's 1919-1922
independence war, and which say their aim is to save the country from
"treasonous collaborators".

"Even though there is an ideological anti-EU movement in Turkey,
many know that the EU will be to the country's benefit. So support
of EU membership will once again increase," Nas predicted.

"But cornering Turkey on national issues such as Cyprus and the
Armenian massacres would lead to a further backlash," she warned.