Turkish EU membership unlikely in near future

LONDON (Reuters) – The European Union is unlikely to agree to open accession talks with Turkey by early 2005, despite recent efforts by the country to pass key reforms, a Reuters poll shows. Ankara has won a pledge from the EU to start entry talks at the end of 2004, or early 2005, as long as key reforms have been implemented, such as removing barriers to free speech and expanding cultural rights for its estimated 12 million Kurds. But in the poll of 39 analysts from financial institutions and think-tanks around Europe, conducted on August 12 and 13, the mid-range forecast showed a 40-percent chance that the EU will agree to open accession talks with Turkey in that time frame. Forecasts ranged from 5 percent to 70 percent. «Turkey has made some impressive progress and the EU has been inching toward recognition of Turkey’s application over the last few years,» said Dagmar Alpen at Oppenheim Research in Cologne. «Opening accession talks in late 2004 is rather unlikely, though… There is still a lot of need for reform in Turkey… so accession will probably happen later rather than sooner.» Turkey, a largely Muslim nation of about 70 million people, is an EU candidate but is not currently negotiating its entry to the wealthy bloc because it failed to meet the basic political criteria for membership. Analysts said a recent landmark legal reform to reduce the political influence of Turkey’s powerful armed forces is a major step forward, although much more still needs to be done. «As with other reforms, the European Commission will be looking for clear evidence of implementation over the course of the next year. This could prove to be a real problem,» said James Ker-Lindsay at Civilitas Research in Nicosia. In the poll, the mid-range forecast showed Turkey will enter the EU in 2012, unchanged from the last poll in May. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he believes the country will join the bloc by that year. ‘Christian club’ Turkey’s reform package, which the government says will be fully implemented in 2004, is aimed at bringing the country’s human rights standards into line with those of the EU. For some, though, Turkey’s involvement in the European Union comes down to one key issue – religion. «The core issue is not economic, or even human rights. It is religious,» said Roger Monson at CA IB Securities in London. «As long as many in the EU view this as a Christian club, Turkey will be slow going.» Others agreed. «Accession talks will be sluggish as swings in domestic politics in Turkey may slow down the process,» said Peter Duronelly at Budapest Investment Management in Budapest. «In addition, the EU needs to give up its conservative pro-Christian, anti-Muslim stance to speed up the process.» Cyprus will also play a significant role in Turkey’s hopes for membership, analysts said. Cyprus has been divided since Turkey invaded the north in 1974 after a brief Greek-Cypriot coup backed by the military regime then ruling Greece. Turkish troops are still in northern Cyprus. Despite the collapse of UN-backed peace talks between the two sides of the island in March, the internationally recognized Greek-Cypriot side of the island will join the EU in May 2004. «After May 2004, Cyprus will… have a say over EU policy toward Turkey,» said Ker-Lindsay. «This could not only complicate the review of Turkey’s eligibility to start formal membership talks but… it would also leave Turkey in the uncomfortable position of being in occupation of the territory of an EU-member state.» Turkey and northern Cyprus signed a customs union deal earlier this month, which some analysts have said could further complicate Ankara’s effort to secure EU accession talks. Analysts said ex-communist countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania have a good chance of entering the EU before Turkey. The mid-range forecast showed Bulgaria has a 73-percent chance of joining as proposed in 2007, while Romania has a 70-percent chance. Croatia will likely join the bloc in 2009, the poll showed. «Politically, it will be much easier to ‘sell’ EU accession for the former Yugoslav countries, such as Croatia and later Serbia and Montenegro,» said Lars Christensen at Danske Bank in Copenhagen. «Turkish EU membership is very low on the EU agenda,» Christensen added, forecasting it would join the EU in 2020.