Turkey is shooting for a year-end start to negotiations, but it will not gain official status until it fulfils basic EU criteria on democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
In its regular monthly meeting on May 30th, the National Security Council (MGK) - which brings together the military’s top generals and politicians - recommended an end to emergency rule in two provinces in the southeast of the country, one of the conditions set by the EU.
The MGK recommended that emergency rule in the predominantly Kurdish provinces of Hakkari and Tunceli be lifted, and extended it for the "last time" in Diyarbakir and Sirnak provinces. The council’s recommendations must be approved by parliament, which normally rubber-stamps policy guidelines drafted by the body.
An EU commission spokesman said the recommendations were a "step in the right direction."
Emergency rule, originally imposed on 13 provinces in the Southeast during Turkey's 15-year campaign against Kurdish separatists, has slowly been lifted as fighting in the area dissipated.
Atilla Yayla of the Association for Liberal Thinking, a body which promotes liberal values in Turkey, says "things are moving slowly, but over the past week some quarters in Turkey have seen the importance of EU membership." He adds that EU membership will force the country to establish values such as justice and the rule of law that otherwise might languish in protracted debate.
Noticeably absent from the MGK meeting was the convalescing 77-year-old Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, who has been in and out of hospital for the last month for treatment for a variety of ailments. Concern over his health and the stability of the government, led to a sharp fall in trading on May 30th, the day of the MGK meeting.
The Istanbul Stock Exchange plunged 2.7% on May 30th to close the day at 10 508, the lowest level of the year. Yields on the heavily traded T-bills, maturing on April 9, 2003, rose to 63.34%, and the lira hit a year low of 1 448 000 to the dollar on the interbank market.
There is widespread concern that the country’s efforts to pull itself from its worst economic crisis in over 50 years could be dragged down in political infighting. Turkey is being assisted in its recovery by a $16bn loan package backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
There are deep divisions within the government over capital punishment and cultural rights, both EU-mandated issues that must be addressed before talks with the bloc can begin. The EU demands Ankara abolish the death penalty and remove laws forbidding the use of the Kurdish language for instruction in schools and in broadcasting.
The lightening rod of debate on the abolishment of the death penalty is Abdullah Ocalan, the captured leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who was sentenced to death in 1999 for treason and separatism.
There has been a moratorium on capital punishment in Turkey since 1984, and a constitutional amendment passed last year restricted capital punishment to states of war, imminent threat of war and terrorist acts.
Comments on May 28th by deputy prime minister and Nationalist Action Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli made the waters more turbid still. But the MHP has since indicated it will go along with the MGK decision to "accelerate" reforms to meet EU criteria.
On a trip to China last week, Bahceli - whose far-right MHP is a member of the ruling coalition - set forth a series of his own conditions. He called for immediate debate in parliament on the death penalty, even as Ocalan appeals his case in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Turkey had agreed to wait for a ruling before considering debate in parliament, which must ratify any death sentence before it can be carried out.
There is also pressure from outside the government, with the influential Turkish Association of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSIAD) urging the government in a full-page advertisement that appeared in Turkish newspapers on May 29th to adopt the reforms without delay. The advertisement admonished that if a year-end date for accession talks to begin is not met, Turkey will be left alone.
All the same, foreign capital continues to stay away from Turkey, as investors remain loath to take their chances in a business climate widely viewed as being rife with corruption. Singing the benefits of closer EU ties, Economy Minister Kemal Dervis said recently in an interview with CNBC-e that the beginning of accession talks alone would mean a 500% boost in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from the EU.
Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer is due to meet on June 7 with political party leaders to discuss ways of speeding along EU reforms.
Opposition figure True Path Party (DYP) head Tansu Ciller says the current debate over capital punishment is a political distraction that should be handled free of outside pressure. Ciller warned that an impasse over the Cyprus issue could have international consequences.
Although Turkey occupies the northern third of the divided island, the Republic of Cyprus seems set to become an EU member ahead of Turkey.
"It is the Cyprus problem that needs to be solved in the short-term, and this is what will open the way to Turkey’s full EU membership, not the death penalty," Ciller said on May 30th at a press conference. Claims that EU membership would be held up by debate over the death penalty were untrue, she said.