Bitter Turkey marks 50 years at Europe's door

1st August 2009, Comments 0 comments

On July 31, 1959, then Prime Minister Adnan Menderes announced Ankara's application to join what was at the time the European Community.

Istanbul -- Turkey on Friday bitterly marked 50 years since its first application to integrate formally with Europe, a date overshadowed by its troubled EU accession talks.

"We remember this anniversary but it's not a cause for celebration," Turkey's chief negotiator with the EU, Egemen Bagis, said in a statement.

"Our country has no longer any tolerance for time wasting and delays... We have to learn lessons from past mistakes, fulfill our responsibilities and achieve the goal of full membership as soon as possible," he said, stressing Ankara's determination to continue on the path of reform.

It was on July 31, 1959, that then Prime Minister Adnan Menderes announced Ankara's application to join what was at the time the European Community.

"That first application was made remarkably by the country's first democratically elected prime minister who was to be hanged following a military coup in 1960," commented Mehmet Ali Birand, a senior journalist and an author of a book on the issue.

The European Community turned down Ankara, but in 1963 the two sides hammered out an association agreement, which mentioned the prospect of Turkey joining the club.

It was only after four decades, in 1999, that Turkey won formal status as a candidate for membership of what had by then become the European Union, and accession negotiations began in 2005.

"Becoming a part of Europe is a dream for Turkey -- a dream that dates back to the Ottoman Empire," Birand said.

For President Abdullah Gul, a former Islamist, "the European Union signifies more human rights, more freedoms and whatever Europe demands from Turkey is good for the Turks," a presidential aide, who declined to be named, told AFP.

Supporters of Turkey's bid say the accession prospect has given impetus to reform drives in Turkey, the most recent being a government plan for a package of "courageous" democracy reforms to boost the rights of the restive Kurdish community.

In remarks to AFP in May, Gul emphasised that "Turkey has taken part in all stages in the building of Europe since World War II" and "made great sacrifices to defend free Europe" during the Cold War after it joined NATO in 1952.

Moreover, Turkey signed a customs union agreement with the EU in 1995, "long before some current Union members," Gul said.

But Turkey has faced unending skirmishes with the EU, battling strong hostility to its membership bid in major member countries.

Turkey has so far opened accession talks in only 11 of the 35 policy areas that candidates must complete, with the process slowed down by disputes stemming from Ankara's refusal to recognise EU member Cyprus.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have been at the forefront of opposition to Turkish membership.

They argue that the relatively poor Muslim-majority country, with a population of 71 million, does not belong to Europe and should be offered an alternative status, less than full membership.

France has also raised the possibility of putting Turkey's accession to a referendum even if membership talks are one day successfully completed.

Not hiding his bitterness over France's attitude, Gul said: "If the French ultimately decide that Turkey has nothing good to bring to the EU and will be only a burden, then they have the right to say no."

Turkey's accession may be inconceivable for many in Europe, but for the Islamist-rooted government in Ankara "it is a way of saying 'See, we are not extremists, we are legitimate'", Birand commented.

The membership process "is a guarantee of stability, a guarantee that the army, which has toppled four governments since 1960, stays in the barracks."


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