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EU Weighing Accession Conditions for Turkey - 2004-10-05


Millions of Turks are waiting with anticipation for a crucial report to be released Wednesday by the European Union that assesses the country's readiness to start membership negotiations with the 25-member bloc.

In crowded coffeehouses, in working class neighborhoods and at high-society dinner parties, the issue of EU membership dominates conversation. Will the E.U. recommend starting membership talks with Turkey when it issues its annual progress report on Wednesday?

While opinion is divided, Turks agree on one issue. Turkey has never been closer to joining the EU than it is today. That is due in a large part to a high-profile campaign by Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, which came to power two years ago.

The group, led by a former Islamist, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has adopted a number of radical reforms ranging from easing bans on the Kurdish language to stiffening penalties for those accused of torturing people in police custody.

According to draft copies of the report, the EU Commission has praised the government for those changes. As a result, the report recommends opening negotiations with Turkey.

"Turkey would be an important model of a country with a majority Muslim population adhering to such fundamental principles as liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law," the draft says. The report notes however that more work is needed in improving human rights, reducing the role of Turkey's military and improving conditions for the country's 12 million Kurds.

At a December 17 summit, EU leaders are to make a final decision on the commission's recommendation. Membership negotiations are expected to take at least 10 years. And the fear among many Turks is that, along the way, the European Union will keep coming up with additional conditions for Turkey's membership.

In recent weeks, a growing number of European academics and politicians have started to voice objections to what they see as a large, poor and predominantly Muslim nation. Bowing to domestic pressure, France's President Jacques Chirac has said that he will put Turkey's membership to a nationwide referendum.

In response, Turkish leaders accuse the EU of bias in its dealings with Turkey. And Prime Minister Erdogan has repeatedly said Turkey will not accept any new conditions for membership. But privately, most Turkish officials acknowledge that absorbing Turkey will be one of the most difficult challenges ever faced by Europe.