Missteps hobble Turkey-EU waltz

A French proposal to ban any suggestion that Armenians did not suffer genocide is just one of the sour notes.

Barely six months after the European Union ended years of indecision by starting talks aimed at allowing Turkey to join the club, doubts about the wisdom of that move are coming to the fore on both sides of the table.

A series of well-publicized court cases, including one Tuesday, against Turkish writers has made Europeans wonder anew whether Ankara really shares their understanding of freedom of speech. Many Turks, meanwhile, see a double standard over head scarf bans and a proposed French law that would ban any suggestion that the Armenians did not suffer genocide in 1915.

The dubious mood clouding the "talks about talks" that Turkish and EU officials have been holding since the beginning of the year indicates just how long and bumpy the process of turning Turkey into a full-fledged European nation will be, say observers on both sides of the Bosphorus.

"There is a sense that the political will in Ankara is not as strong as it was, if there's any left at all, to invest in this process with Europe," says one EU diplomat in the Turkish capital, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue. "The commitment ... that they are still professing is less convincing because it is not being reflected by their actions on the ground."

Especially worrying to the Europeans is the way prosecutors have used a controversial article of Turkey's revised penal code against writers accused of insulting state institutions or Turkish identity. A number of these cases, such as the one against author Orhan Pamuk, have been dropped after sharp EU criticism. But Tuesday, the trial began of an Armenian-Turkish newspaper editor who is charged with "attempting to influence the judiciary" against the penal code. The editor, Hrant Dink, was met with shouts of "traitor" as he entered the courtroom.

Rights activists also fear that a planned anti-terror bill, which would allow the imprisonment of journalists found guilty of "propagating terrorism," might be used against anyone expressing support for Kurdish separatists. A recent upsurge in violence in the majority-Kurdish southeast of Turkey, meanwhile, could lead the military to reassert itself in domestic affairs.

The EU last month urged the Turkish authorities "to make sure that the security forces show the necessary restraint" in the wake of street clashes that left 16 people dead and 36 children in jail, some facing 24 years in prison.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul has brushed aside charges of "reform fatigue," insisting recently that "our reform efforts aimed at raising standards and practices in all areas of life to the highest contemporary standards will resolutely continue."

But the approach of elections next year, coupled with a drop in public support for EU membership to 50 percent from 80 percent two years ago, means that leaders of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) "don't want to take risks," says Mensur Akgun with the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, a think tank in Istanbul.

The government "is focusing on elections and on the mood in the country, and that mood is very inward-looking," says the European diplomat. "Instead of showing the way and leadership, the government is listening much more to these ghosts that have been haunting Turkey for decades."

"There is a rising nationalism in the country," adds Mr. Akgun, and the AKP "has a constituency that is rather conservative in a nationalist sense, and they have to reciprocate to their feelings."

That nationalism has been fed by two rebuffs from the EU.

Ankara is galled that the Turkish-populated half of the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus remains under economic embargo even though Turkish Cypriots accepted a UN plan to reunite the two sides.

Late last year, religious Turks were upset when a European Court of Human Rights ruling upheld Turkey's head scarf ban in public universities.

Turks have also been angered by a vote next Thursday in the French Parliament on a bill that would criminalize any statement casting doubt on the Armenians' claim that they suffered genocide at Turkish hands in 1915. The bill would impose jail sentences and a fine on historians, journalists, or others who challenge Armenians' version of events, in the same way French law punished revisionists who deny the Holocaust.

The bill is unlikely to pass, but it reflects longstanding mistrust of Turkey in Europe. That mistrust is fed by freedom-of-expression cases being brought against writers, says Joost Lagendijk, who heads the European Parliament delegation to the joint EU-Turkey parliamentary committee.

"The mood in Europe is that nothing has happened in Turkey since October except setbacks," warns Mr. Lagendijk.

Quietly, Turkish and EU civil servants have been reviewing the 35 "chapters" of Turkish legislation that will have to be brought into line with EU law, and have agreed on negotiating points for 19 of them, officials say. Substantive negotiations on education and science are due to begin next month.

Nobody expects Turkey to join the EU until 2015, even if things go well. That, says Lagendijk, is a good thing, since EU citizens are displaying doubts about the union's future and purpose.

"We have some time ourselves to solve our own problems before we have to deal with Turkey," he says. "In the meantime, the negotiations will continue behind the scenes."

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