10/04/2005, 00.00
TURKEY - EU
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Mixed feelings greet launch of Turkish EU membership talks

Austria has accepted the terms of the negotiating mandate: accession, not "privileged participation". Stands taken within the Muslim country: the press recalls Europe's debts to Turkey and protests against membership take place in Ankara and Istanbul.

Ankara (AsiaNews) – Turkey endured long, bewildering hours of announcements and denials yesterday before finally hearing the news that its membership talks will go ahead with the EU. The green light for negotiations – a process expected to last at least 10 years – came in the late evening.

"We have agreement. I am going to Luxembourg," Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, told the press as he left the headquarters of the Justice and Development Party in Ankara to join ministers of the Union.

Austria accepted that the common goal of negotiations should be accession and no longer insisted on the weaker option of "privileged participation", which had been upheld by many conservatives and Christian Democrats across western Europe.

It would seem, then, that the considerable palpitations experienced in recent days by the whole Turkish nation – divided into those for and against – are over. There are those, like the national daily Posta in its recent editions, who assert that entry of Turkey into Europe is inevitable, given the great historical and cultural debt the west owes to this thousand-year "Empire".

The Turkish newspaper was quick to counter a provocative question which the English Independent had the audacity to pose: "But what have the Turks done for us?" On Sunday, the Turkish paper retorted: "What would have become (of Europe) if it were not for the Turks?" It followed up its question with a detailed, page-long list of things the Europeans "learned" from the Turks: peaceful coexistence between different cultures and religions (emphasizing that all enjoyed the same social and civil privileges under the Ottoman Empire, although it was Muslim); the art of painting and crafts, above all using fabrics; trade (without forgetting that the silk trail developed above all under the Ottoman Empire); the eastern lifestyle and military awareness (Turkey prides itself in being the most valiant and strong NATO ally).

Then there are others who, as the Hurriyet daily points out, recall the notable efforts made since 1999, when Helsinki laid down tough conditions for Turkey to meet if it ever wanted to approach Europe's gates. In 2002, the death penalty was abolished in times of peace and last year, the prohibition was extended to times of war. In 2002, the ban on teaching in the Kurdish language was lifted and in June 2004, ample broadcasting space was given to Kurdish programmes on the TRT national radio and television channels.

 

In May 2004, the law discriminating against women in cases of adultery was abrogated; penalties handed down for "honour crimes" increased in favour of women; and a strong political and social campaign is under way for literacy of children and girls in rural areas where the level of education is very low.

A zero-tolerance programme against torture in detention has been given a strong push forward; torture is now forbidden and punishable by 12 years in prison.

Certain positions amounting to interference in the government of the Security Council have been reviewed and the Tribunal of State Security was abolished last year.

Always according to the same newspaper, provisions for non-Muslim religions have been expanded, although the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I laments that not enough has been done as yet in this regard. And some stipulations in the penal code against freedom of expression have been changed even if, as the Posta admits, there are still gaps in the law. This was clear, for example, in the notorious court case filed against the well-known Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk, who dared to publicly denounce the Armenian genocide. However, adds the paper, there are renowned lawyers who have taken up his defence and a positive resolution to the case is hoped for.

However, despite this progress which has unfolded under the gaze of all, not everyone is in favour of Turkey joining Europe and on Sunday, large demonstrations registering disapproval took place in Ankara and Istanbul. The first, organized by the Turkish Nationalist Party (MHP) and attended by 70,000 people, was one big protest against Europe addressed by the party leader Devlet Bahceli. Self-appointed spokesman, he held the crowd with a speech of more than 75 minutes in a bid to convince his militants that the opening of negotiations meant the start of serious trouble for Turkey. According to Bahceli, this step will disrupt the nation's social and economic development.

The second protest, organised by the Communist TKP party, drew around 3,000 people despite bad weather. The slogan of the demonstration in the square –   "An independent nation against Imperialism and Facism" – accompanied the march and speeches, in a heartfelt "no" to dependence on the European Union.

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