Building bridges with Europe’s troubled neighbours

Keeping Turkey and the Balkan states focused on the EU will help these countries in their efforts for reform, Danish ministers argue

The promise of accession to the EU is being used by Danish ministers as a carrot to help the EU’s troubled neighbours in the Balkans and Turkey turn toward democratic reform and away from separatism and autocracy.

In Turkey’s capital Ankara on Friday, the foreign minister, Villy Søvndal (Socialistisk Folkeparti), met with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, to discuss a range of issues. With Denmark holding the EU’s presidency, however, high on the agenda was Turkey’s stalled negotiations for joining the EU.

Speaking at a joint press conference with Davutoglu, Søvndal said he would seek to restart the negotiations – effectively frozen over the past few years – before the end of the Danish EU presidency on July 1.

”There are many in the Danish parliament who support improving political ties with Turkey, meaning that we can take on the role of ‘bridge builder’ in the final stage of our presidency,” Søvndal said, according to Politiken newspaper.

The process of negotiating accession into the EU requires that the candidate country align 36 different chapters of law with EU law. While Turkey has managed to align with seven of the chapters, little progress has been made on aligning the remaining 29.

As EU president, Denmark hopes, however, to reopen negotiations of at least one chapter, if only to symbolically demonstrate the desire for closer co-operation and integration.

But with Søvndal admitting that they would have to wait until after the French elections on June 17 to start the negotiations, the presidency only has a narrow two week window to make any progress.

Cyprus takes over the rotating EU presidency on July 1, a country that has such a poor relationship with Turkey that they are unlikely to have any contact during their six-month term.

At the press conference with Søvndal, the Turkish foreign minister highlighted the urgency to make progress.

''The upcoming month is critical. We expect the Danish rotating presidency to play a leading role in overcoming this decades-long problem,'' Davutoglu said, according to Turkish Weekly.

While Danish media chose to focus on the plans to breathe new life into the accession negotiations, Turkish media sought to highlight the ongoing tension between the countries created by the Kurdish broadcaster, ROJ TV, which is based in Denmark.

ROJ TV was fined 2.6 million kroner in January after being judged by Copenhagen City Court to be the voice of the armed Kurdish separatist group the PKK that the EU considers to be a terrorist organisation.

The trial was brought about after heavy political lobbying from Turkey, though they were ultimately disappointed that ROJ TV managed to keep its broadcasting licence despite the conviction.

According to Turkish Weekly, “Davutoglu said he had voiced during [Friday's] meeting Turkey's expectation from Denmark to take concrete steps on the matter, such as putting the relevant court ruling into practise and banning the TV station's broadcasts.”

Historically, Turkey has suppressed the rights of ethnic Kurds, only over-turning the ban on speaking the Kurdish language in the mid-90s.

However, Kurdish sympathisers are still being suppressed, with one Kurdish MP, Leyla Zana, recently being handed a ten-year sentence for having given speeches in Kurdish.

“I brought up the case of Leyla Zana with the Turkish foreign minister as it concerns us when leigslators are convicted,” Søvndal said. “We will be following the case.”

Søvndal’s gesture to Turkey was matched by a recent trip to the Balkans by the Europe minister, Nicolai Wammen (Socialdemokraterne), to visit the four countries furthest from becoming EU member states: Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Albania.

Wammen said he would use the remainder of his time as Europe minister after the end of the Danish presidency to help ensure that the Balkan countries remained on the path toward the EU.

“The Balkans have a great importance for peace and security in Europe,” Wammen told Jyllands-Posten newspaper. “If we look at a map of Europe and look at where there is the greatest risk for conflict and disturbance, it’s the western Balkans – countries that want to join the EU and that are in our best interest that they join.”

Most agree, however, that there is a long way to go before any of these countries become fully-fledged EU members. All four countries are poor and dependent on some level of foreign aid while a few EU member states have yet to even recognise Kosovo as an independent state from Serbia. There are still over 6,000 NATO forces in Kosovo to help quell ethnic tensions in the new state where 45 percent of inhabitants live below the national poverty line.

Wammen, however, is determined to keep their attention focussed on Europe, rather than on their internal troubles that less than two decades ago were the cause of civil war and bloodshed.

“The message from the ministers that I spoke to is that they want to go the European way,” Wammen said. “It would be an historic mistake if we closed the door on countries that show a will to go the European way.”

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