Is Turkey fed up with Europe?

During a visit here last week, Germany's president said the country had far to go before joining the EU.

For many Turks, joining the European "club" has been a transcendent, decades-long dream.

But since Turkey was accepted last December as a candidate for European Union membership, visits by critical European officials have been more frequent than rain in winter - and have prompted debate and soul-searching.

Every ranking European visitor has criticized Turkey's poor human rights record and uncompromising line towards Islamists and minority Kurds - and made clear that EU acceptance would require fundamental change.

On a state visit last week, German President Johannes Rau said a "formidable effort" was required on reforms and Turkey had a "long way to go."

Just days before, European Parliamentarian Daniel Cohn-Bendit had criticized Turkey for imprisoning political activist Leyla Zana - winner of the European Parliament's 1995 Sakharov Peace Prize - and said Zana's "problem is the antiterrorism law."

But such criticism fuels an anti-Europe backlash. Many Turks are not sure that they have to - or should have to - alter their beliefs to fit European norms.

Their roots are different value systems and visions of future sovereignty - which raise questions about how far both sides are willing to bend to accommodate each other.

Turks and Europeans have both changed their thinking since early 1998, when Turkey's EU application was put on hold amid a welter of European comments that Muslim Turkey would never be fit to join the Christian club. But there are new challenges, too.

"There is a new atmosphere, and if a lot of West Europeans are serious about Turkey's entry, it is because of a more grown-up approach, a response to a geostrategic reality," says Karen Fogg, the EU representative to Turkey.

But Ms. Fogg adds: "I'm not sure there is a parallel change in Turkey." She mentions several groups of Euro-skeptics. "Turkey was thinking it had a holy right to enter, but there was not too much awareness of what needs to be done. They are gradually shedding their suspicions, but there are still flat-earthers, people who are anti-globalization...and those who think Turkey can do without Europe."

Turkey is the eastern anchor of NATO, and by some estimates is the 16th largest economy in the world, making it a large bite for the EU to swallow.

"Our value systems should converge ... [but] there are problems that will not pass simply, and Turkey's integration into Europe with its huge economy and population means Turkey will have a big role," says Seyfi Tashan, head of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute at Ankara's Hacettepe University.

"Europe is reluctant to give it that role," says Mr. Tashan. "I believe we will have integration, but it will take years and years for Europe to make up its mind that Turkey should be a member. By then, Turkey may not be interested."

Within 15 years, Turkey may be the 10th largest economy in the world, "so why should we be forced to to follow policies that countries like Finland and Ireland will have a [right to veto]?"

Europe needs Turkey as a bridge to Central Asia, the Mideast, and Iran, though it has not "overcome" the "strong viewpoint that Turks are not part of 'us,' that they are outsiders ... who are still seen as peasants," Tashan says.

"Turkey has always had a deep-rooted suspicion of Europe, and [the 1997 rejection] confirmed those fears," says a European diplomat. "Then there was a Christian democratic trend in Europe, and it was inevitable that they would see it in terms of religion."

Change of governments since then in Germany and Greece - with Athens using a massive earthquake in northwest Turkey last August to aid its longtime foe and break the diplomatic ice - has paved the way for rethinking.

Blunt EU diplomacy toward Turkey has been counter productive, some argue, by giving the impression that human rights is Europe's only concern. Arm-twisting flies in the face of Turkey's formidable national pride, which has its roots in the secular, West-oriented vision of Kemal Ataturk, who founded the modern republic in 1923.

"This has brought those out of the woodwork who are terrified of what the EU might mean," says a senior Western diplomat. High-profile visits to jailed human rights campaigners are rarely balanced by wreath-laying at Ataturk's tomb, he adds, while many European officials seem to expect overnight change. "There is a belief that the EU will reverse in Turkey what Ataturk gave to Turkey."

Among those traditions has been the supreme role of the military. At the top of its agenda is controlling Kurdish nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism.

The military has carried out three coups since 1960, and in 1997 orchestrated the removal from office of Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. But today there are signs - in part because of EU rules about civilian control of the military - that the armed forces are keeping a very low profile.

The turning point came on March 28, Turkey's chief of staff Kuseyin Kivrikoglu refused to comment on a presidential crisis: "We are not saying anything, because anything we say could change the [political] agenda. We are being particularly careful in light of our EU candidacy."

"They are feeling that they don't want to be involved in politics," says Metehan Demir, diplomatic correspondent for the Hurriyet newspaper. "These are very fundamental changes."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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