Turkey's bumpy ride in 2006 in its bid to join the EU By Christopher Wade

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Saturday December 23, 2006

By Christopher Wade, Ankara- When Turkey began official negotiations to join the European Union in October 2005 hopes were high that after years of wrangling Turkey had a clear target, albeit one far off in the future: membership of the club it has wanted to join for decades. By the end of 2006, however, that target seems as far away as ever with the EU having suspended negotiations on eight out of 35 policy areas thanks to a dispute over Cyprus.

Turkey's refusal to open its ports and airports to EU-member Cyprus until embargoes on northern Cyprus are lifted was the reason behind the suspension, but Turkey's relationship with the EU and individual European countries has been stretched on a number of issues throughout 2006.

One of the biggest outcries from liberals and human-rights activists both in Turkey and Europe was the trial of novelist Orhan Pamuk on charges of "insulting Turkishness."

Pamuk was charged after telling a Swiss newspaper that "30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody dares to talk about it."

Pamuk was eventually found not guilty on a technicality, but that hasn't stopped a group of nationalist lawyers from bringing charges against other novelists, writers and journalists whom they perceive to have insulted Turkey.

The cases are embarrassing for Turkey and attract huge criticism, but by the end of 2006 the government still hadn't made any move to get rid of Article 301, the vague law under which Pamuk was tried.

Pamuk's words on the Armenian issue continued to echo throughout the year, especially when it was announced in October that he had won the Nobel Prize for literature.

In a country where any international achievement by a Turk is normally celebrated by all, there was a certain lack of enthusiasm for Pamuk's award with many saying Pamuk had won it for political, not literary reasons.

On the same day that the award was announced the French parliament passed a bill that would make it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide.

Turkey officially denies that a genocide against Armenians during the First World War took place, and it is still a very touchy subject to bring up, as the charges laid against Pamuk prove.

While the French bill has no chance of becoming law, the move was seen in Turkey as a direct affront. Anti-France demonstrations took place and the military cut off ties with its French counterparts.

Turkey is also criticized for its failure to implement further reforms regarding the Kurdish minority.

Moderate Kurdish political groups claim they are harassed by prosecutors and complain that it is against the law to address political gatherings in Kurdish.

Despite calling a unilateral ceasefire during the year, guerrillas from the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) have continued to clash with security forces in the south-east.

In a blow to Turkey's image, and to its tourism reputation, a shadowy Kurdish group known as the Kurdish Freedom Falcons carried out a number of bomb attacks during the summer in various tourist resorts that injured a number of Turkish and foreign tourists.

Turkish tourism bodies are hoping though that the bombings will be forgotten and are instead now going to use the good publicity that Turkey received from the visit in November of Pope Benedict XVI.

The pope's visit to Turkey was one fraught with risks. Benedict had angered Muslims in Turkey and around the world in September when he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who had said that Islam was a religion spread by the sword.

Fears that the visit would be marked by huge protests proved false, however, with the visit going a long way to heal Muslim- Christian relations.

Images of the pope praying in Istanbul's Blue Mosque were beamed around the world.

Newspapers in Turkey heaped praise upon the pope and Benedict wooed Turkey with his departing words that he would be "leaving a piece of (his) heart in Istanbul."

The pope even went as far as to say that he supported the process of Turkey trying to join the EU. Again this statement made front-page headlines in Turkey, but it came at the same time as the European Commission recommended suspending parts of Turkey's negotiation process.

At the end of the year Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that while Europe seemed to be turning its back on Turkey his government would continue to implement reforms, and that if the EU completely spurned Turkey, he had a "plan B and plan C." What those plans are, the prime minister did not elaborate.

While Turkey's deficiencies concerning human rights, minority rights, the role of the military in politics are certainly problems for Turkey's EU bid, it remains the issue of Cyprus and the matter of opening ports and airports that is still the major obstacle in Turkey-EU relations, and with neither side looking like making any concessions, it will no doubt continue to be a stumbling block.

With elections for parliament and the presidency coming up in 2007, it is difficult to see any Turkish political group prepared to make any concessions on the matter.

The Turkish public may not care in any case: support for EU membership has fallen in just a year from over 80 per cent to under 30 per cent according to some polls. Turkey and Europe seem to be drifting apart.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency