The ‘Sick Man of Europe’ is banging at EU’s gates
ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) _ The `Sick Man of Europe’ is banging at the gate, but Europe doesn’t seem at all keen about opening up.
Peering out are the leaders of the 15-nation European Union, who must decide at their December summit in Luxembourg whether this nation of 60 million people is worthy of being let in.
Rare is the conversation with Turkish officialdom that doesn’t include a reference to the ``sick man of Europe″ _ once a description of the declining Ottoman Empire, but cited today as proof Turkey really is part of Europe.
And rare is the European Union official who doesn’t think Turkey is still sick. It has a bad case of inflation and runaway public spending. It suffers from a lack of tax reform, uncontrolled social security programs and a privatization program that just can’t get off the ground.
Worst of all is Turkey’s inability to come to grips with human rights abuses.
Then there is the unspoken explanation _ which European leaders officially deny _ that many in Western Europe simply don’t want to absorb a huge Muslim nation with a potential for turning into another Iran or Algeria, a nation where an Islamic party was the leading vote-getter in the last national election.
Nor are many Europeans enthusiastic about allowing ``free movement of people″ within their trading bloc for a nation with millions of poor and unemployed.
On the upside is Turkey’s very strong economic growth _ 6 percent in the first half of 1997 _ and a market potential that makes entrepreneurs salivate.
``I don’t think we are being treated fairly,″ Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem says. ``And I wonder if we will be treated fairly at the summit.″
The EU Commission, the governing body for the European bloc, recommended in July that membership negotiations start next year with Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Estonia, along with Cyprus, which was selected earlier.
Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Latvia and Lithuania are considered potential candidates, but not yet ready to begin negotiations.
Left out in the cold was Turkey, which has been working toward EU membership since it signed an association agreement in 1963. The Turks acknowledge they are not ready for negotiations, but don’t see why they can’t be on the candidate list with the five other unready countries.
``Now you put Bulgaria ahead of us,″ said Sedat Aloglu, an independent member of Parliament. ``That’s really unfair. If it’s trouble, Turkey is always there. If it’s social, we are excluded. Is that fair?″
Foreign Minister Jacques Poos of Luxembourg, the nation that currently holds the EU presidency, noted during a visit to Istanbul that Turkey’s economy is stronger than each of the 11 other countries considered membership candidates.
Hans van den Broek, the EU’s foreign affairs commissioner, agrees Turkey qualifies for membership as a democratic European country. But, he adds, it fails in three areas: respect for human rights; an unresolved conflict with an EU member, Greece; and its military occupation of northern Cyprus.
Turkey acknowledges these difficulties. But it says they would be easier to address if its people were benefiting from the increased trade and social interaction that would come from being brought into the EU fold.
Turks are quick to point out they were faithful military allies to western Europe throughout the Cold War, were indispensable to the Persian Gulf War coalition against Saddam Hussein, and still provide bases for flights over Iraq.
``The importance of Turkey increases when there are difficulties on the world scene and diminishes when the Europeans are feeling more secure,″ says Uluc Ozulker, Turkey’s ambassador to the EU.
Greece is clearly Turkey’s principal foe in the EU, holding up EU aid. The two countries have nearly gone to war twice in the last decade in disputes over islands in the Aegean Sea. And Cyprus’ division into ethnic Greek and Turk portions also strains relations.
But Germany, already home to 2 million Turkish workers and the scene of anti-foreigner violence, is no friend either.
``The EU does not have a strategic vision,″ Cem says. ``It is not ready to face the challenges. Getting closer to Turkey is an immense opportunity. It’s a huge country with a huge population and an extremely dynamic economy.″
Turkish leaders admit their country has a human rights problem and say they are working hard to solve it. At the same time, they attempt to justify some abuses by pointing out they are fighting a war in southeastern Turkey against ethnic Kurds who want to split the country.
Real power in Turkey lies with the military, and some critics say that until the army decides to clean up human rights abuses, there is little the civilian government can do about it.
``If there wasn’t a Kurdish problem, they would find something else,″ says Fikret Baskaya, a professor of economics and a human rights activist who has paid for his views with jail time.
``In the 1920s and ’30s, the enemy was Islamic fundamentalism. After the war, it was containment of communism _ until the 1980s, when the Kurdish movement became important.″
There are elections, a Parliament, and a democratic program, says Baskaya.
``But scratch below the surface and you see the real regime.″