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Europe

Turkey Plods on Long Road to EU

Time is running out for Turkey. By March 19, the country has to comply with criteria for accession to the European Union, failing which it jeopardises its chances of being accepted to the EU fold.

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The Kurdish language is one issue Turkey needs to tackle before it gets EU membership

Turkey is under pressure. After much wrangling and lobbying, the country has finally been accepted as an official candidate for the European Union.

But it first needs to fulfill criteria laid down by the EU and get working on fast-track reforms.

Some of the Copenhagen political criteria include constitutional guarantees for freedom of opinion, assembly and religion, the abolition of the death penalty, the prevention of torture and guarantees of the cultural rights of all citizens irrespective of their origin.

But most of the fundamental reforms are still nowhere in sight.

Turkey falters on penal code changes

Turkish Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit says, "We have almost entirely fulfilled the short-term obligations. In face we fulfilled most of them well ahead of time. We will now continue our work to attend to our middle-term obligations."

But in reality Turkey has not made much progress in fulfilling promises within the given time frame. Political criteria it must realise include making 26 laws and changing 32 existing ones. In the long run, Turkey must make and implement almost 90 laws and change an equal number.

Vice President Mesut Yilmaz an advocate of Europe in the three-party coalition assures that Turkey will fulfil all criteria "on time". But even he is aware naturally that there's a huge gap between wish and reality.

Yilmaz

Mesut Yilmaz, türkischer Vize-Premier und Vorsitzender der Mutterlands-Partei (ANAP) - (Stand: Januar 2001) Archivbild vom 17.03.1998

"I don't want to think about what we'd miss out on - on the political, economic and democratic level- if we don't manage to acquire EU membership", he says.

Turkey has already changed paragraphs 312 and 159 in the penal code that restrict freedom of speech and thought. Similarly paragraph 7 and 8 of the controversial Anti-terror law have also been changed.

But human right activists, lawyers and international observers condemn the perfunctory changes as a "farce". They argue that the drafts of the new laws have in reality led to further clamps on individual freedom.

On a recent working visit to the country, EU commissioner Günter Verheugen responsible for EU expansion matters was candid: "The question of EU membership for Turkey does not arise unless the necessary progressive laws are implemented", he said.

"The so-called "Mini Democracy Package" - making changes to the constitution, which in turn will be implemented by changing the laws - a process which one is still waiting for, doesn't live up to the expectations of Europe", he says.

Abolishment of death penalty a vexed problem

The biggest problem is the death penalty.

The conservative Mesut Yilmaz and the Centre-Left nationalist Prime Minister Ecevit advocate its unconditional scrapping. But the Right-wing Nationalists in the government supporting Devlet Bahceli have put up conditions.

The death penalty was last enforced in 1984. Ever since, the death penalty has not been dealt with in the Turkish Parliament and has automatically been translated into lifetime imprisonment.

The Right-wing Nationalists vow that they too are in favour of doing away with the death penalty, but only when in one last case, the "number one enemy of the state" Abdullah Öcalan is hanged.

But it's clear that the execution of Abdullah Öcalan would spark much criticism by the EU, especially considering that the death penalty would then finally be erased from the constitution.

The deputy fraction chief of the Right-wing Nationalist MHP party, Ismail Köse is convinced that the abolishment of the death penalty will not be achieved without the support of his fraction.

"I don't believe that the constitutional change will be carried through once it comes up for discussion in Parliament. I think that there are several members of Parliament such as those from the MHP, who are against it".

The abolishment of the death penalty is not difficult only because of the inner political resistance. The death penalty is incorporated in four Turkish penal paragraphs that include a total of 41 statutory offences.

Ankara has already agreed to the scrapping of the death penalty by signing international protocols and conventions. But in addition to changing the law paragraphs, it also needs to change the constitution and the law order of the parliament - a difficult manoeuvre.

Turkey undecided on Kurdish language issue

A further problem is the Kurdish language.

The government does not look favourably upon Kurdish language lessons. But it is more flexible in the case of Kurdish language media because its free existence is a precondition laid down in the Copenhagen criteria of the EU for candidate countries.

Vice President Yilmaz says, "Programmes in all languages apart from the mother tongue is one of the elements in the Copenhagen criteria. In Turkey there are no restrictions along these lines as far as print media go. But there is a special law for radio and television and there is a media watchdog authority RTÜK. The Parliament has discussed the topic and come to a consensus. Kurdish programmes will be allowed, though it's not yet clear how that will be worked out. But the problem will be solved shortly..."

This is what Yilmaz said last month. But there's still no solution in sight for this problem.

Yet Yilmaz is aware that if Turkey does want to keep to its own deadline and enforce reforms by March 19 in order to join the EU later, urgency is of utmost importance.