Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has started a three-day visit to France aimed at gaining support for Ankara's bid to join the European Union. RFE/RL reports that Turkish officials attach great importance to this visit, noting that opposition to Ankara's goal of EU membership remains high in France.
20 July 2004 -- Before leaving Ankara yesterday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear his visit would focus on his country's efforts to join the 25-member European bloc.
Although Ankara applied for entry into the EU in 1987, it was granted candidate status only in 1999. And five years later, accession talks have yet to start -- a delay mainly due to European concerns about Turkey's poor human rights record.
The European Commission in October will review reforms implemented by Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party since it came to power two years ago. Ankara hopes a positive assessment will prompt EU leaders to set a date for accession talks when they meet in December.
Before boarding a plane for Paris, Erdogan said, "I will explain [to French leaders] what steps Turkey has [already] made on its way toward the EU...and reiterate its commitment to bringing its legislation in line with EU laws."
Erdogan, who is traveling with several ministers and a large business delegation, met today with French President Jacques Chirac at the Elysee Palace. No details of the talks were immediately available.
Addressing journalists after meeting his French counterpart Jean-Pierre Raffarin yesterday, the Turkish leader said he is counting on support from Paris when EU leaders meet in December to decide whether to open entry talks with Ankara. "We talked at length with the [French] prime minister about the EU summit next December and we hope all the support France has lent us on the European issue -- notably through the intermediary of President Jacques Chirac -- will continue in the future," Erdogan said.
Yet France, where Turkey's accession into Europe has largely dominated the recent campaign for EU parliamentary elections, remains divided over the issue.
The Paris-based left-wing "Liberation" daily noted today that Turkey, which has already secured the support of most European capitals, sees France as the biggest obstacle remaining on its road to Brussels. With the notable exception of the Greens, all French political parties have either voiced opposition to Ankara's entry into the European bloc, or refused to take a firm stance on the issue.
The strongest opposition comes from right-wing nationalist groups and the moderate, center-right Union for the French Democracy party. They say they are concerned at the prospect of nearly 70 million Muslims joining the EU and claim neither history nor geography justifies Turkey's claim.
The opposition Socialist Party generally supports Ankara's membership bid and hails the significant reforms made by Erdogan's government. But it believes conditions have still not been met for Turkey to join the bloc and cautions against hasty decisions. The Socialist Party also says a precondition for Ankara's bid should be its recognition of the killing of hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Armenians during World War I as genocide.
Even in Chirac's Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) party there is no consensus on the issue. Three months ago, the top UMP leadership said it was opposed to Turkey's becoming a EU member. The move then forced Chirac -- a longtime advocate of Ankara's accession -- to cautiously enter the fray.
"I am convinced Turkey is destined to become a member of Europe. But I am also convinced that its entry into the [European] Union will be possible only under certain conditions that, as of today, are still not met," Chirac said.
In an interview with Marc Tronchot of France's Europe 1 private radio station, the French foreign minister today gave a similarly cautious assessment. While praising Turkey's efforts to meet conditions required to join the EU, Michel Barnier warned against Ankara being overly optimistic.
"We have to tell the truth: Turkey is not going to join the European Union tomorrow morning. Turkey has still a long way to go before it happens. Yet, it has been on this road for some time, preparing itself and making progress," Barnier said. He made it clear his remarks were also meant to reassure those in France who believe Turkey is not ready to join the bloc.
Talking to reporters on his way to Paris, Erdogan yesterday acknowledged that Ankara's membership bid may be heavily influenced by European public opinion. "At [last month's] NATO summit in Istanbul, Chirac in person told me that 60 to 70 percent of France's public opinion was in favor of Turkey's joining the EU," he said.
The Turkish leader added that he hoped France's political leaders would eventually heed their voters' opinion and voice support for Ankara's EU bid.
(Turkish TV, Anadolu, "Liberation," Europe 1)