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EU Expected to Give Green Light to Turkish Membership Talks - 2004-10-05


The European Commission, the European Union's executive body, is expected to recommend on Wednesday that Turkey be allowed to begin negotiations to join the bloc, but it is also likely to set tough conditions on Ankara's eventual membership.

Turkey has been waiting to join the EU for more than 40 years. In 1999, the bloc named it as a candidate for membership. The next step is to begin formal membership talks, a process that is likely to take at least ten years before it can finally join.

On Wednesday, the European Commission will make its recommendation that Turkey be given a date to start the negotiating process. When EU leaders hold a summit in Brussels next December, they are likely to approve the commission's advice and set a date for the talks to begin.

The decision comes amid growing political and popular opposition in some key EU members, like Germany and France, but also Austria and the Netherlands, to Turkey's eventual accession. Many Europeans feel Turkey is just too big, too poor and too Muslim to fit into the European club. They worry about the cost of absorbing Turkey and they also fret about a wave of Turkish migrants heading westwards.

But supporters of Turkish membership argue that the country cannot be left out in the cold forever, that refusing it the chance to join the EU would not only be a slap in the face to Turks but to Muslims in general at a time when Europe needs to build bridges to the East. And, proponents say, Turkey offers the EU the military capabilities the bloc needs to project itself onto the world stage as a political, and not just economic, power.

Guler Sabanci, the head of one of Turkey's biggest business empires, tells Europeans not to panic because Turkish membership is still a long way off.

"The decision in December is not about Turkey becoming a full member of Europe. It is actually deciding on a date to start the accession discussions. So it will take time," she said. "Turkey and Europe will have time to discuss and to adapt themselves to each other."

And Georges Dellcoigne, who heads the European Center for International and Strategic Research in Brussels says Turkey and Europe will be good for each other.

"One can understand, shall we say, the angst," he said. "It is a challenge. It will be most competitive within the EU, but it's better to have it within than without."

Leaked versions of the recommendation, to be issued on Wednesday by the European Commission, point out that, while Turkey has made progress in meeting the EU's standards on human rights and political reforms, it still has a long way to go.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose two-year-old government has done more than any of its predecessors to bring Turkish laws into line with those of the EU, acknowledges that his country needs time to make sure that those laws are fully implemented. On a visit to Brussels, he said he understands that it will take Turkey years to complete entry negotiations.

"You will agree that the implementation requires a change in mentality, and this will not be as easy as adopting a piece of legislation. It will take [a] longer time," said Mr. Erdogan.

Copies of the commission's report say that, while Turkey has made progress in stamping out torture, boosting freedom of expression and the press and improving the way it treats its big Kurdish minority, a lot of work remains to be done in each of those areas. EU officials say it will also suggest that the EU retain the right to suspend negotiations if Turkey backtracks on human rights and democratic reforms.

The document says allowing Turkey to begin negotiations could spur the reform process forward. And it suggests that Turkey, as an E.U. member, could become a model Muslim democracy based on respect for human rights and the rule of law.

The commission estimates that the annual cost to the EU of absorbing Turkey, once it is a member, could be as much as $34 billion. But analyst Eral Yilmaz, at London's World Markets Research Center, says Turkey wants more foreign direct investment rather than EU handouts like agricultural subsidies and aid to its poorer regions.

"Foreign direct investment is important because Turkey at present doesn't have the level of domestic savings to fund a growth rate that it needs to be able to converge with Europe, so direct foreign investment will help it to invest in certain sectors that need to be brought up to speed," said Eral Yilmaz.

Some EU officials are suggesting that Turkey be made to accept limitations on the free movement of its workers as a condition on joining the Union, an idea that is certain not to go down well in Ankara.

Another cloud hanging over the whole project of integrating Turkey into Europe is a pledge by French President Jacques Chirac to hold a referendum on Turkish membership. In theory, such a vote could reject Turkey's entry into the EU whatever happens in the long, drawn-out negotiations that could begin as early as next year.