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Turkey downplays Chirac party objection to EU bid

ANKARA, April 8 (AFP) – Turkish leaders on Thursday sought to play down opposition from France’s ruling party to the Muslim nation’s European Union membership bid, billing it an attempt to woo domestic political support.

“Various exaggerated words can be said for reasons related to domestic politics,” Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told reporters, according to Anatolia news agency.

The government spokesman, Justice Minister Cemil Cicek, said: “I prefer to see the statements as aimed at domestic politics” ahead of European Parliament elections in June.

“I hope their opinion will change after the elections,” he added.

French President Jacques Chirac’s centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) said Wednesday it was against starting EU accession talks with Turkey this year.

His close adviser and the UMP party leader, Alain Juppe, said countries on the periphery of the growing EU, such as Turkey, “have no business joining (the bloc) otherwise it will be diluted.”

Juppe said his party instead wanted a “priviliged partnership” with Turkey on the same footing as one that would be extended to north African countries and southern states of the former Soviet Union.

The position, seen as likely to become the official French government line, followed a highly critical evaluation of Turkey’s progress towards EU entry conditions adopted by the European Parliament on April 1.

EU leaders will decide in December whether to open accession talks with Turkey, the only membership aspirant that has so far been denied a seat at the negotiating table.

Their decision will be based on a report on the country’s progress to be penned by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm.

“We are expending efforts to ensure that the report… is the best one,” Gul said.

The Turkish press lashed out at the French rebuff and accused Paris of hypocrisy towards Ankara.

The Aksam daily said the French ruling party was forced to “spill the beans” because Turkey had gone a long way towards meeting the political norms required for membership and had expended substantial efforts on resolving the Cyprus conflict.

Turkey’s much-criticized democracy and the division of Cyprus have long been put forward as the major stumbling blocks on its road to EU membership.

Ankara has recently won praise for its efforts to catch up with EU norms, but Brussels says it still has to fully implement the reforms on the ground.

During a visit to Turkey in January, European Commission chief Romano Prodi said Turkey was “closer than ever” to the EU, but warned that it still had to win over skeptics in Europe who oppose its entry because of its Muslim faith and sizeable population of some 70 million people.

                                                                 Subject: French news