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EU to Review Turkey's Membership Bid in Late 2004

Leaders of the European Union have approved a timetable to review Turkey's candidacy for membership in late 2004, and grant it a date to start entry negotiations soon afterward, as long as Turkey meets EU human rights standards. Ankara is outraged at not being given a firm date to begin membership talks.

Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul reacted angrily to the European Union's failure to set an early date for his country to begin accession talks. He accused the 15-nation union of being biased against his country. And he charged French President Jacques Chirac with leading the fight against giving Turkey the 2003 date it wanted for starting negotiations.

Earlier this week, France and Germany proposed giving Turkey a 2005 date for beginning entry talks, conditional on a late 2004 review of its progress toward meeting the EU's criteria on human rights and democracy.

The plan approved Friday substantially reflects the Franco-German proposal. The only difference is that there is no firm date for Turkey's membership talks to begin.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen says that, under the deal, Turkey would be able to begin entry talks as soon as possible after EU members deem it to have met EU requirements two years from now.

Mr. Rasmussen is hosting an EU summit in Copenhagen that aims to bring in 10 mostly eastern European countries by 2004.

Although Prime Minister Gul and the head of Turkey's ruling party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were meeting with Mr. Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder Friday in an attempt to get a better deal from the EU, Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson told reporters the timetable approved by EU leaders is non-negotiable.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who supported an earlier date for Turkey's accession negotiations, told reporters that Ankara's determined pre-summit lobbying for a firm date may not have helped its case. EU diplomats say U.S. pressure on EU countries to favorably consider Turkey's demands may also have been counter-productive.

Still, the European Union is trying hard not to give Turkey the feeling that it will be left out in the cold. A draft statement circulating among delegates says the union's 15 members as well as the 10 candidates slated to join the union, will jointly affirm their commitment to Turkey's EU candidacy. Turkey has expressed concern that some of the new members might try to block its eventual accession.

One diplomat says the European Union's inability to give Turkey a date for membership talks reflects the union's doubts about whether it should allow a populous, overwhelmingly Muslim country, most of whose territory lies in Asia, to join the bloc.

But German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer says the union is not seeking to remain a Christian club. He says the EU is based on common values of democracy and human rights, and not on religion.