17 November 2004
Looking back on events, it seems like everything took place extremely quickly and unexpectedly - during the Finnish turn at the EU Presidency. The dramatic nature of the situation was underscored by the fact that a somewhat unusual delegation was sent to persuade Turkey's Prime Minister B+-lent Ecevit. The group comprised the recently-named EU foreign policy envoy Javier Solana, the Commissioner for Enlargement G+-nter Verheugen, and Jaakko Blomberg, Secretary of State at the Finnish Foreign Ministry.
In a few hours Ecevit was flown to Helsinki to sign the historical agreement, under which Turkey was accepted as a candidate for EU membership.
What took place behind the scenes during the Finnish EU Presidency? Was everything as spontaneous as it was made to appear?
In the spring of 1999 NATO was bombing Yugoslavia. In April Turkey got a new government, in which veteran politician Ecevit became Prime Minister.
"The government led by Ecevit began to institute reforms in Turkey both for reasons of its own, and in order to improve his position in the EU - that is, to get the status of a membership candidate. Previously it had been just pure talk", Ambassador Jaakko Blomberg recalls. He says that it was the desire of Turkey's new government to institute reforms that created a willingness to get Turkey as a membership candidate.
At the time, Blomberg was working at the post of Secretary of State at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. For three years he had specialised in the dispute over the divided island of Cyprus. Blomberg was to become one of the architects of Turkey's candidacy for membership.
In the early part of the year Germany held the EU Presidency. It was during this period that Turkey arrested the legendary Kurdish leader Abdullah +ûcalan, who faced the death penalty. This complicated Turkey's EU membership process considerably. Blomberg notes that Germany failed at the summer summit in Cologne to resolve the fate of Turkey's membership candidacy.
At the time Tarja Halonen was the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Official sources note that Halonen had a "resistant and emotional" attitude toward the idea of Turkish candidacy for EU membership. The reasons for this included the country's poor human rights situation and the thorny Kurdish question.
"At one stage it reached the point where when Blomberg tried to show a memorandum on Turkey, he came out of Halonen's office with the frame around his neck", one official quips.
President Halonen will not admit directly that as Foreign Minister she had been resistant to Turkey's candidacy for membership, but she does emphasise the importance of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in the process.
"Let's just say that I think that Turkey's membership process was an extremely difficult and delicate issue. I am very satisfied that we have come this far", Halonen says now.
In August 1999, nature intervened in pushing the Turkish question forward. First Turkey, and later Greece, were hit by several massive earthquakes. The human tragedy generated political sympathy between Turkey and Greece, helping to transcend their differences over Cyprus.
"It changed absolutely everything. All those things that were half empty were suddenly half full", Blomberg recalls. Blomberg, Halonen, and EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Hans van den Broek were soon visiting the disaster area. "After that it was clear that this was Finland's project", Blomberg recalls.
However, the population at large did not know much about the issue. Hints that the Turkish question might become an important theme of the summit were brought out, but the draft treaties drawn up by Blomberg were only seen by a few people: President Martti Ahtisaari, Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, and Foreign Minister Halonen, as well as a handful of officials. The matter was prepared with a low profile, so that a possible failure would not overshadow the whole Finnish EU Presidency.
According to one official source, Halonen's reluctance did not have any practical significance, because the goals for the talks were kept a secret anyway.
In addition, several assessments indicate that Halonen's attitude softened when Turkey did not implement +ûcalan's death sentence.
When the Helsinki summit finally began in December, things did not turn out quite as planned. Lipponen managed to persuade Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis to back the agreement. Thus, the EU member states had given their approval to Turkey's membership candidacy. An initial settlement with Turkey existed.
However, Turkey's leadership started to put on the brakes when Halonen, as the Foreign Minister of the holder of the EU Presidency, briefed Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem on the decisions of the foreign ministers' meeting.
"I am quite certain that because of her basically negative attitude, Halonen had not acquainted herself well enough with the sensitive wording of the agreement. For that reason, it was necessary to send a flying delegation to fetch Ecevit", said one official source at the scene of the meeting.
The solution that was reached was that Lipponen would send a fax to Turkey's political leaders.
"I do not have a precise recollection of who called, but the situation was so alarming that as Prime Minister of the holder of the rotating Presidency, Lipponen sent a letter [by fax] to Ecevit. In the lettter Lipponen gave his personal assurances of how the agreement should be read, and that it is not open to the suspicions that these telephone calls have raised", says Blomberg. "When that did not seem to work, we sent the flying delegation."
After a moment Solana, Verheugen, and Blomberg were flying to Ankara to "negotiate" with the Turkish government. "It was a symbolic trip. There were no negotiations", Blomberg reveals.
Source: Helsinki Sonamat