The Turkish government is downcast by the prospect of missing a self-imposed year-end date for the start of European Union membership talks after it passed a raft of ambitious EU-demanded reforms aimed at eventual membership in the bloc. Notwithstanding Ankara's grumbling over what it sees as a double standard for NATO's only Muslim member, the EU says reforms, although encouraging, do not by themselves warrant the start of talks at a summit in Copenhagen in December.
The EU commissioner for enlargement, Guenter Verheugen, said reforms passed by parliament last month, which included abolition of the death penalty and the granting of greater cultural rights to the country's Kurdish minority, were "encouraging," but warned that the laws had to be properly instituted. "Turkey has started to move in the right direction… But it will not hide the fact that we need to see proper implementation. We need to see secondary legislation that applies the changes of the constitution, therefore I do not believe that we will have a track record before the end of the year which is sufficient to make a final judgement," Verheugen told reporters on August 30th after an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers.
Turkish officials maintain that Ankara's place in Brussels' expansion plans should be ensured with the passing of the reforms. Speaking on September 2nd on the NTV television network, Turkish Foreign Minister Sukru Gurel said Verheugen's comments were poorly timed. "Turkey has done everything it could do, if not more." President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, speaking on September 2nd from Johannesburg where he was attending a United Nations conference on sustainable development, suggested Ankara's candidacy was being unfairly influenced by Verheugen. "[Verheugen] cannot talk on behalf of 15 EU member countries. He cannot direct the EU's position."
A commission formed to craft guidelines of EU-related laws on the use of minority languages and the purchase of land by minority foundations met for the first time on September 3rd. State Minister Ali Dogan, who sits on the commission along with the justice and interior ministers, suggested after the meeting that Ankara would try to beat the clock on the start to talks. "Even though a period of one year is foreseen for these laws, we are required to make these arrangements as soon as possible." Speed is of the essence, ahead of a report on candidate countries' progress due in the middle of October. The list of countries with whom the EU will begin talks will be announced in Copenhagen in December.
Weeks of division in the left-right coalition over the reforms had threatened to add to prevailing political uncertainty and wreck $16bn in stabilisation funds backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The sense of urgency and entitlement with which Turkish politicians regard EU membership talks was expressed clearly by Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit after the vote. "Turkey is waiting for full membership in the shortest time. Full EU membership is our right… Turkey is already freer, more democratic, more European." The country's mainstream dailies reported the changes in similar language, heralding the vote as historic.
However, Cyprus remains a significant bump in the road to Brussels that will no likely be removed by decisive legislation of the kind witnessed in early August. Turkey is against Cyprus' accession to the EU as a divided island and dismisses any suggestion that Ankara's bid should be contingent on resolution of the Cyprus issue. "Some circles have been trying to connect the EU and Cyprus question. The Cyprus question is not regarded with the Copenhagen criteria and EU full membership. The Cyprus question should be resolved by the Turkish Cypriot side and the Greek Cypriot side," Ecevit said on September 3rd.
Central to Turkey's EU bid is the loosening of laws that regularly land politicians and intellectuals in prison for undermining the integrity of the state, under controversial Aricle 312 of the constitution. Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), served time in prison after being sentenced for incendiary remarks, and he faced a political ban based on his conviction. But on September 6th, an appeals court overturned a ruling by a lower court enforcing the ban. Erdogan's lawyers had argued that 312, included in the package of EU reforms, had been amended according to EU standards, and therefore was no longer applicable. Erdogan and his conservative AKP, eyed warily by the country's secular establishment, are the frontrunners in the race to win the November elections.