|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||05/10/95, Volume 1, Number 03|
EUROPEANS are closely watching the fortunes of Turkey's acting Prime Minister, Tansu Çiller. With them, many feel, hangs the future of a customs union between Turkey and the European Union.
Çiller cancelled a trip to Brussels planned for earlier this week to concentrate on forming a new government. She had been expected to attend a two-day business-sponsored seminar on investment in Turkey aimed at bringing new money into the country and speeding up privatisation of industry there.
Before she resigned the premiership on 20 September, Çiller had been the customs union's champion in Turkey. The project's survival may depend on whether or not she can regain her post.
“We are watching with concern,” said Pauline Green, the leader of the European Parliament's Socialist Group. “It's too early to say yet whether the new government will be as firmly committed to democratic reform.”
Çiller, who has made closer links with the European Union and the accompanying reforms demanded by the trade bloc a key feature of her policy since her election in June 1993, is fighting to form a new coalition and stay in power after her break-up with her social democratic coalition partners.
Turkey's Ambassador to the European Union, Ülöc Ozulker, says Çiller's resignation should not be read as a sign that the country is in chaos. “In all democracies,” he says, “coalition governments may come and go. It does not affect national issues.”
While observers have not yet buried all hopes for the customs union scheduled for 1 January next year, most fear that the road will be more difficult now.
Most of the scenarios show increased chances for early elections. If Çiller is forced to go to the polls early to form a coalition, the minds of most politicians will turn from reform and customs union to vote-getting.
Çiller remains committed to the customs union and is likely to use it as a central plank of her re-election platform, but she now has less room for manoeuvre. Polls show the Islamic Welfare Party, Refah, gaining in popularity and, along with it, the party's anti-customs union stance.
To win EU approval for the customs union, Çiller has had to push for democratic reforms - altering Turkey's constitution to change anti-terrorism legislation and to allow for freedom of speech - and economic reforms to combat spiralling inflation and a rise in unemployment.
Both are anathema to some and may have cut into her popularity. But others believe that the EU could help Çiller win votes. Turks have been disappointed by the EU's repeated rejections of their bids for membership and closer trade ties. Acceptance could raise Çiller's political stature.
“Çiller and most of Turkey's political elite are engaged in a process to move towards Western political norms,” said one Western diplomat. “We should be assisting those forces.”
Turkey has been straining for closer ties to the European Community since 1963, when the two sides signed the Ankara Agreement which foresaw an eventual customs union.
In 1989, the Commission turned down Turkey's application for immediate full membership, saying the country's economy and politics did not meet European standards. However, Ankara has not given up.
Cyprus is also watching the development of EU-Turkey ties. The Commission wants to resolve the Greek-Turkish dispute over the island before bringing Cyprus into the Union. While not a prerequisite for membership talks, a solution to the political divide would greatly increase Cyprus' chances of joining the Union before the end of the century.
For Turkey, the customs union is more than expanded trade ties. It is a tool to help democratise Turkey, the diplomat says. “If the customs union goes wrong, that would be a tremendous setback in Turkey. The best way to encourage the Turks is to keep it up.”
But Ankara has not done enough, says the European Parliament. It has not rewritten Article 8 of the constitution which contains the country's harsh anti-terrorism law. The Parliament, due to cast its crucial vote on the customs union in December, remains firm in its opposition to the customs union until that article is amended. It also demands improvements in Ankara's human rights record and the release of Kurdish deputies jailed for separatist links. In what could be considered an act of provocation, the Parliament's Socialist Group is nominating Leyla Zana, a Kurdish deputy facing a possible death sentence, for the Sakharov prize for freedom of thought.
The Parliament may have to tread carefully. It may be justified in using the customs union as a lever to secure democratic progress, but must know where the boundary is between helping and hurting human rights advocates in Turkey.
A No vote to the customs union would mean disaster for Turkey, says Çiller's spokesman Murat Ersavci. “Opponents will use it to say 'Europe is a Christian club. Let's forget about Europe and get back to Islam'.” He added: “Turkey is the only secular and democratic state of 52 Islamic countries. It will fall into chaos.”
EU governments, however, are firmly committed to the customs union. Spanish Foreign Minister Javier Solana, current President of the Council of Ministers, is reputedly pushing the European Parliament to speed up its vote. But Parliament officials say a vote before December could have a negative result. That would do more damage, they claim, than a delayed but positive response.
Ankara has convinced EU foreign ministers, with whom it will meet on 30 October, that Turkish legislation in key areas such as customs and intellectual property, is now compatible with EU regulations.
As for political reforms, Turkey's membership in NATO and other international organisations makes it more suitable for EU membership than most of the countries lined up to join, says Ambassador Ozulker.
Çiller told European governments and law-makers she was committed to democratic reforms. But, according to Ozulker, the European Parliament cannot take that as a guarantee. Turkey's assembly will have the last word.
But the ambassador had comforting words for supporters of closer EU-Turkey ties. No matter who is in power in Ankara, “some national issues cannot be changed and customs union is one of them”.
Çiller will be part of a coalition government and any coalition including her will continue to tackle the reforms needed to win a customs union.
The most immediate threat to the customs union would be a dissolution of parliament preventing it from starting work on the constitutional changes. Turkish law allows the president to dissolve the assembly if it cannot create a ruling coalition in 45 days. That would mean elections in 60 days or so and no legislation in the meantime.
If Çiller ties her True Path party to the Motherland party, as expected, there is no threat to the customs union project, Ozulker says. In July, the Motherland party agreed to Çiller's requests to amend Turkey's constitution. Turkey's Grand National Assembly reconvened on 1 October and parliamentarians are due to discuss Article 8. But if elections are in the offing, the debate may be shelved.
“Any instability could pose problems for the customs union,” says Elaine Cruikshanks of the lobbying firm Hill & Knowlton, which represents Turkey at the EU. “Çiller is the one pushing it hardest and another figure may not be so wedded to the idea.”
Greek MEP Yiannis Roubatis declined to jump on the wagon of speculators guessing who will win Turkey's internal political gambles. Perhaps optimistically, he expects continuity from Ankara, regardless of who is in the driver's seat.
“When she made those promises, Çiller was not speaking as an individual, but as Prime Minister. I expect the next Prime Minister to respect the position of the government he or she inherits,” Roubatis said.
“As a member of the European Parliament, I will work with any leader they elect.”
|Subject Categories||Business and Industry, Politics and International Relations, Trade|
|Countries / Regions||Turkey|