EU set for historic decision on Turkish entry talks

14th December 2004, Comments 0 comments

14 December 2004, BRUSSELS - Six months after the European Union expanded into eastern Europe, the bloc's leaders this week are set to fix a date for opening membership talks with Turkey, a strategically located NATO nation which has been knocking on EU doors for over 40 years.

14 December 2004

BRUSSELS - Six months after the European Union expanded into eastern Europe, the bloc's leaders this week are set to fix a date for opening membership talks with Turkey, a strategically located NATO nation which has been knocking on EU doors for over 40 years.

Turkey can, in fact, count on a number of strong friends and allies in Europe including Britain's Tony Blair, German Chanceller Gerhard Schroeder and the leaders of Spain and Italy. The European Commission also favours opening talks.

Europe's embrace of Turkey will mark a historic turning point in a constantly evolving EU which began life half a century ago as a small six-nation club but has now expanded to 25 countries.

By opening entry talks with Ankara, the EU leaders meeting this week in Brussels will set the EU on course for an even more significant transformation from a wealthy Christian club into a vast multi-religious bloc stretching to the frontiers of Iraq and Syria.

Despite the high strategic stakes, however, Turkish accession remains a much-disputed question, and European public opinion and EU politicians fiercely divided over whether the country should be allowed to join the bloc.

Opponents warn that the country is too big, too poor, too undemocratic - as well as too Muslim and Asian - ever to become a fully fledged EU member.

There is concern that the entry of a Muslim nation of over 70 million people will weaken Europe's cultural identity and put an additional burden on EU finances.

Advocates for membership argue, however, that Turkey's economic vigour will inject more momentum into flagging EU economies, give Europe more global clout and improve Europe's relations with Islamic nations.

An opinion poll published in France's Le Figaro newspaper this week said two of three French citizens and 55 percent of Germans were opposed to Ankara becoming an EU member.

On the other hand, Ankara's entry was welcomed by the majority of people in Italy (49 percent against 24 percent), Britain (41 percent against 30 percent) and especially Spain (65 percent), according to the poll.

With such divergences in mind, the EU leaders meeting in Brussels on 16 to 17 December will have to tread carefully.

The summit is widely expected to give the go-ahead for starting accession talks but the green light is expected to be accompanied by a string of new conditions.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be asked to recognize (Greek) Cyprus, accept a permanent cap on labour migration to the EU and agree that entry talks could be suspended at any time if Ankara should slip in pushing through political reforms.

Even more controversially, France and Austria are demanding that Turkey should be ready to accept the fallback option of a special or privileged relationship rather than full membership if it fails to comply with EU political standards.

There is also a growing EU consensus that negotiations with Turkey must open at the end of 2005 - after key states like France hold their referendum on the bloc's new constitution. Talks are expected to span a period of 10 to 15 years.

But the anti-Turkey lobby also counts a formidable list of names. Turkish entry will mean that Europe will lose its "original rationale" of further political and economic integration, according to former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who also chaired last year's EU constitutional conference.

Germany's conservative opposition party leader Angela Merkel is against Turkish membership and says that Ankara should be offered a special partnership instead of full accession.

French President Jacques Chirac used to be an enthusiastic supporter of Turkey inside the EU. However, aware of rising anti- Islamic sentiments in his country, even he insisted in recent months that the Union should have an Plan B which would give Ankara merely a privileged status if it fails to meet entry standards.

Brussels is set to keep Ankara under strict surveillance after the beginning of the entry talks. Negotiations would be "long and difficult," French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier warned this week.

Ankara has so far stayed firm in its drive to ease European concerns. But Erdogan has warned that his patience with the EU was beginning to wear thin. Europe's failure to set a date for starting entry talks would be viewed as "discrimination", he said recently.

DPA

Subject: German news

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