The president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, said Thursday in Ankara that Turkey is closer than ever to the European Union because of recent reforms. Mr. Prodi spoke after meeting with Turkey's prime minister at the start of a landmark visit to the only predominantly Muslim candidate-country for EU membership.
At a joint news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mr. Prodi praised the reforms the new Turkish government has adopted. He urged Turkey to continue on the path of reform, which he said has brought Turkey closer to the European Union.
The senior European official also urged Turkey to continue working toward a solution to the nearly 40-year division of Cyprus. But he said finding a solution is not a condition for progress on Turkey's bid to join the European Union.
Mr. Prodi's talks in Ankara had been expected to focus on Turkey's progress toward gaining full membership in the European Union, for which it formally applied 17 years ago.
The senior EU official has praised the government for the wide array of democratic reforms adopted by the Turkish parliament, where the prime minister's ruling Justice and Development Party has a strong majority.
But Mr. Prodi was expected to tell the Turkish leaders during his two-day visit that implementation of those reforms is crucial for Turkey to qualify for full membership. So far, EU officials say many of the laws are not being enacted, in particular those granting greater linguistic rights to Turkey's estimated 14 million Kurds.
The European Union is expected to make a decision in December on whether to launch accession talks with Turkey. Mr. Prodi's visit is the first by any EU commission president since Turkey launched relations with the European organization in 1963.
The organization has long put off Turkey's request to launch membership talks because of the country's poor human rights record. Recent public opinion polls also indicate that people in some EU countries are wary of having a large Muslim country with a fast expanding population of 70 million as part of their regional organization.
Proponents of Turkey's inclusion in the union counter that it is far better to have Turkey inside the organization, than outside and potentially hostile.
In addition, the dispute over Cyprus is having an impact on Turkey's EU ambitions. The EU wants Turkey to use its influence over the Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, to resume talks aimed at reuniting the divided island. The Cyprus government, which does not control the Turkish sector in the north, will enter the EU in May.
Some 35,000 Turkish troops have been stationed in Cyprus since Turkey invaded the north of the island in 1974, in response to a coup mounted by Greek Cypriots seeking union with Greece.