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Fine-tuning for the EU

InternationalPrime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's persistence in trying to vindicate his Islamic-rooted ruling party's attempts to outlaw adultery as part of Turkish Penal Code reform have deepened suspicions in Europe over Muslim but secular Turkey's ability to embrace European values -- a challenge Ankara may now need to tackle with circumspection.

The Turkish Parliament swiftly ratified the Penal Code reform yesterday after Erdogan bowed to European pressure in his talks with top EU officials in Brussels last week, bringing to an end a row with the bloc on completing the reforms. The ratification boosted expectations both in Ankara and in Europe that the European Commission will recommend giving the green light to Turkey to begin accession negotiations after an EU summit in December.

The Penal Code was described by the EU as the "centerpiece" of reforms Ankara must make to meet the Copenhagen criteria.

But even the increased chances for the start of Turkish entry talks look unlikely to halt a heated debate on eventual Turkish membership that has recently dominated some of the European agenda.

The most notable in the latest flood of rhetoric on Turkey, was that of French Prime Minister Raffrain. "We are not doubting the good faith of Mr. Erdogan, but to what extent can today and tomorrow's governments make Turkish society embrace Europe's human rights values?" he said. "Do we want the river of Islam to enter the riverbed of secularism?"

The coalition partner in Denmark, the Denmark People's Party (PPD), called for a referendum on Turkey's eventual EU membership. PPD leader Pia Kjaersgaard said that Turkey did not have a place in Europe and that it was unacceptable that no one had consulted the Danish people on the issue.

German main opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) reiterated a "privileged partnership" offer for Ankara instead of full membership. CDU leader Angela Merkel criticized Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for failing to adequately inform the German people about the consequences of Turkey's eventual EU membership.

The opponents of Turkish entry argue that the candidate country's population is too large for the EU to digest; its economy is too poor to develop to the union's standards; it is not located in Europe and will stretch the EU borders to the unstable Middle East; and finally that it does not belong to Europe culturally as it is overwhelmingly Muslim.

There are also staunch supporters of Turkey's EU bid, among them the leaders of heavyweight EU countries such as German Chancellor Schroeder and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. French President Jacques Chirac is known for personally being in favor of Turkey, but he faces opposition from the ruling Union for Popular Movement (UMP) party.

Erdogan is expected to travel to Europe early next month to attend the opening ceremony of a Turkey exhibition in Brussels and to receive a Turkish-German friendship reward in Berlin. Although, it is not confirmed, he may hold a trilateral meeting in Berlin with Chirac and Schroeder to exchange views on Turkey's readiness for the start of talks. As part of his lobbying efforts, another trip to Strasbourg is planned for the premier on Oct. 6, when he is due to address the European Parliament.

The perplexity in Europe was heightened on whether granting a date for Turkish talks was still a good idea after Erdogan and his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) repeatedly attempted to punish infidelity with a jail sentence since it was viewed as a move to introduce an Islamic law, which was incompatible with European values. The adultery amendment was not included in the approved Penal Code.

The premier's initial rebellion in the adultery controversy by accusing the EU of meddling in Turkey's domestic affairs and his remarks saying that "The European Union is not indispensable for Turkey" raised European eyebrows. A number of EU officials felt they had to remind Ankara that Brussels's warnings on finalizing the Penal Code reform without criminalizing adultery was not interference in Turkish affairs but was rather the rule of the game.

Rule of the game
The current Turkish government appeared to have comprehended "the rule of the game" that joining the European club would mean accepting its rules and principles. Erdogan's administration has made an array of crucial reforms to meet EU criteria and even took bold steps in a bid to help resolve the long-running Cyprus dispute, fixing a uncompromising image of Ankara in European eyes.

But when it comes to the adultery issue, either under pressure from AKP ranks and the grassroots or acting with other motives, he, in the beginning, turned into a hard-liner without calculating possible repercussions in Europe. In the face of risking a negative or conditional recommendation from the European Commission, however, he had no choice but to back down since only days remained until the release of a key commission report on Turkey.

There are still outstanding issues for the Erdogan government, for which it may come under pressure in the future from the AKP grassroots, such as easing the limitations on university entrance of the graduates of imam-hatip clerical schools to enter universities or on a ban on wearing the Islamic-style headscarf.

A ban on wearing the headscarf in state schools took effect in France earlier this month and the European Court of Human Rights, in a case from Turkey, ruled in June that banning the headscarf was not an abuse of human rights and was valid for fighting fundamentalism.

Although the government does not look likely to take immediate action on any of these controversial issues, the prime minister may need to weigh their compatibility with the EU if he wants Turkey keep on its EU track even after the start of accession talks.

Supporters of Turkey's EU bid in the West, including close NATO ally the United States, argue that Muslim Turkey's accession to the bloc would enable it to play a bridge role between the Christian West and Muslim world and would encourage reforms in the latter. But focusing alone on Turkey's Muslim identity and neglecting to highlight its secular constitution could backfire in the EU since much of the suspicion in the minds of Europeans lies in this matter.

Turkey's eventual EU membership is not foreseen for at least another 10 years.


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