Prime Minister Tansu Ciller has hailed the 6 March customs agreement with the EU as the first step towards Turkey’s full membership of the union. However, the agreement has generated domestic opposition and still has to be passed by the European parliament which has long been critical of the country’s human rights record.

‘Today is an historic moment not only for Turkey but for her partners as well. It is an important and vital milestone in our relations with the European Union,’ Ciller said after the agreement was reached. ‘This was one of the most important parts of my political mission.’

The deal marks the end of more than 20 years of negotiations which, because of Greek resistance, had been unable to formalise political and economic ties between Turkey and the EU. In return for Greece’s agreement to lift its 14-year-old veto on any customs union, the EU has offered a timetable for Cyprus’ membership.

Under the agreement, expected to come into force on 1 January 1996, tariffs will be removed and common tariffs will be established for products from outside the region. However, some Turkish industries will remain protected from EU competition, and Turkish agricultural exports will still face curbs in EU markets. Turkey will also receive an ECU 1,000 million ($1,290 million) aid package under the deal.

The agreement has to be ratified by the European parliament in October. Parliament members have said that they will veto the deal unless Turkey removes curbs on freedom of expression and improves its human rights record.

However, Ciller has publicly committed herself to amending the draconian measures enshrined in the 1982 constitution, which was drafted by the ruling military junta, and to modifying the country’s security laws.

Domestic opposition to the deal has been widespread. ‘Turkey plunges into a pool but doesn’t know if there is any water in it,’ Motherland Party leader Mesut Yilmaz said on 6 March. The Islamist Welfare Party (RP) said it would annul the agreements if it wins power. ‘This is colonial rule and capitulation,’ RP secretary-general Oguzhan Asilturk said. ‘Turkey will be made the site of dirty industry and a pool of cheap labour for Europe.’