Talking Turkey: Impending Vote on European-Turkish Customs Union Will Shape History

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Talking Turkey: Impending Vote on European-Turkish Customs Union Will Shape History

By James M. Dorsey

The European Parliament vote this fall on ratification of a customs union agreement between Turkey and the European Union is likely to shape history. At stake in its decision on whether or not to acknowledge Turkey as a European power are both political stability at the crossroads between Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and vast economic opportunities.

Right now Turkey's stock is low with the parliament, whose members virtually unanimously condemned Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller's government in early April for its incursion into northern Iraq. The European Parliament vowed then to reject the customs union agreement scheduled to come into effect next year unless Turkey improved its human rights record by this fall.

"Fundamentalism is only going to be a threat if Turkey is left out of Europe."

"Success will require vigorous action not only by the Turkish government but also certainly by the [Turkish] Grand National Assembly to pass the economic legislation and the constitutional and legal changes needed to ensure approval of our ambitious joint project by the European Parliament," said European Commissioner Hans van den Broek.

"The European Parliament will be asked, in the early autumn, to give its assent to the customs union. But Parliament's assent will only be forthcoming if its members feel that Turkey and the Union are committed to the same fundamental values," van den Broek said.

The council's 34 member states also approved a resolution asking its governing committee of ministers to suspend Turkey unless it showed significant progress toward a withdrawal from Iraq prior to a June 26 European Union summit.

At the same time, Turkey's relations with some of its individual NATO allies deteriorated further over the Kurdish issue, with Ankara announcing it would stop all new military purchases from the Netherlands. The Turkish boycott followed the Dutch government's decision to permit a Kurdish parliament-in-exile to be set up in The Hague. The Dutch government says its law does not prohibit exiled Kurds from meeting as long as their activities are not linked to terrorism.

Turkey's protest was largely symbolic since the Netherlands, along with Germany and Norway, already had declared they would suspend new arms sales to Turkey because of its offensive into northern Iraq. Turkish officials said, however, that the ban did not cover equipment Turkey already had ordered from the Netherlands. Two Dutch companies are supplying Turkey with casings for grenades and electronics for radar.

Formal rejection of Turkey by European institutions next fall might turn the country inward, strengthening the Islamist Rafah (Welfare) Party in advance of Turkish general elections scheduled for next year. Rafah promises to take Turkey out of Europe if it comes to power.

"Fundamentalism is only going to be a threat if Turkey is left out of Europe," says Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller. "Turkey is not in need of Europe. In fact, I think Europe is more in need of Turkey."

In reality, both Turkey and Europe have important stakes in using the customs union as a political, social and economic link between Turkey and the West. This bond is all the more important now that Turkey's other major Western tie--NATO--is less relevant following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In economic terms, Mrs. Ciller's assessment that Europe needs Turkey makes sense. Turkey is a market of 60 million people that serves as a gateway to the newly independent republics of the former Soviet Union. The customs union initially will benefit European more than Turkish companies.

Acknowledging this, Bulent Eczacibasi, vice chairman of the Eczacibasi Group, one of Turkey's largest economic conglomerates, says that "The political side of the customs union is the important aspect."

The EU's van den Broek puts trade between Turkey and the EU at some 20 billion European currency units ($22 billion) a year. …