Prague, 28 September 2004 -- Most of the legal changes, which have still to be approved by President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, will not come into effect before 1 April. Yet, they helped remove the last hurdle on Ankara's path toward formal accession negotiations with Brussels.
The European Commission had made it clear that if Ankara failed to liberalize its Penal Code -- copied from that of fascist Italy in the 1920s -- it would have recommended that EU leaders not set a date for entry talks with Ankara in its final report on Turkey due on 6 October.
The commission today welcomed the legal reform, saying it would pave the way for a positive assessment next week.
In Turkey, lawmakers from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) welcomed the legal reform as a major breakthrough in relations with the 25-member European bloc.
Speaking after the 26 September vote, AKP Justice Commission Chairman Koksal Toptan said the decision would remain as a milestone in the history of modern Turkey.
"We were really desperate to pass these laws before 6 October. The basic philosophy of these laws is to demonstrate our general approach toward the EU criteria. We are really happy that we passed these laws today. This is very important step toward the EU and this is also very important for the modernization of Turkey." Toptan said.
The emergency vote was made possible only after Erdogan promised EU officials to withdraw a controversial bill aiming at reverting a 1996 decision to decriminalize adultery. The Turkish leader had justified the planned draft by saying it aimed at strengthening family values and women's rights.
The new Penal Code meets key demands of human rights groups by stiffening penalties for the perpetrators of so-called "honor killings" of adulterous women. It also bars Muslim clerics from engaging in politics.
Yet, many among Turkey's staunch secularists question Erdogan's sincerity in his last-minute decision to withdraw the adultery clause -- as well as earlier moves to shelve plans to allow Islamic scarves in universities or ease access to higher education for graduates from secondary religious training institutions, known in Turkey as Imam Hatip schools.
They claim the AKP leader is merely hiding his Islamic nature behind "takkiye," a practice that allows Muslims to dissimulate their beliefs when in danger.
Opponents had voiced similar arguments before the November 2002 legislative polls that brought the one-year-old AKP to power, warning Erdogan would show his true Islamic nature once in power.
Yet, supporters of Turkey's entry into the EU argue Erdogan has, in two years, achieved substantial progress toward democracy.
Martin Schulz of Germany chairs the Socialist Group in the European Parliament. In comments made to Radio France Internationale (RFI) on 26 September, he said the Penal Code reform crowned efforts made by Turkey's conservative leadership to adapt national laws to that of the EU.
The new Penal Code meets key demands of human rights groups by stiffening penalties for the perpetrators of so-called "honor killings" of adulterous women.
"The might and influence of the [Turkish] military have been reduced to an extent that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago," Schulz said. "[Also], look at the Kurdish issue. [Erdogan's AKP] has legalized the right to use the Kurdish language on television; this is a reality."
"I do not mean that everything is going well in Turkey. There are still a number of improvements to make. Many more years, perhaps 15 years, will be required to transform the Turkish society. But if we were to close the door and say 'no' [to Turkey], that, in my opinion, would create more risks than if we chose to clear the way [for its entry into the EU]," he added.
Yet, the recent adultery controversy has added fuel to the arguments of those who, in Europe, argue against Turkey's membership.
Many base their opposition on Turkey's demographic weight -- 68 million people -- and its predominantly Muslim character.
In comments printed on 23 September by "The Wall Street Journal," French center-right Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin voiced misgivings about Turkey's accession, wondering if Europe really wanted "the river of Islam to enter the riverbed of secularism."
Yet, it seems that those who believe religion poses the main obstacle to Turkeys' EU ambitions are a minority.
Results of a recent opinion poll conducted in Denmark show that although a majority of people there are against Turkey's entry, it is more because of remaining concerns over human rights violations. Only 19 percent of the respondents say their opposition is based on religious arguments.
According to another poll published in France's center-right "Le Figaro" daily, 63 percent of the respondents believe Turkey can join the EU in the future provided it makes the necessary political and economic changes.
For France's former foreign minister and Socialist Party member Hubert Vedrine, religion should not interfere in the debate.
"Islam is not an issue. The fact that Turkey is a Muslim country should not be obstacle [to its admission]," Vedrine said in an interview on 24 September broadcast on Europe 1 radio. "Nor should it be an incentive, just to show that Europe is not a club of Christian countries. When Albania is economically ready to enter the EU, the question will not even be raised. So [religion] is not an issue."
Most European leaders hostile to Turkey's EU membership have been careful not to cite religion as an argument.
They generally cite the consequences Ankara's entry would have on the bloc's decision-making process to argue against its admission. They also mention Turkey's occupation of northern Cyprus, human rights violations in its restive Kurdish provinces, and its refusal to recognize the killings of hundreds of thousands Armenians at the turn of the 20th century as genocide to justify their position.
France's Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who plans to lead the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) in November, this week argued for a nationwide referendum on Turkey's admission.
Sarkozy said he had reservations about Turkey's entry, "not because it is a Muslim country, but because it alone represents the membership of the 10 countries that joined the bloc this year."
Paradoxically, European parliamentarian Jacques Toubon -- another member of French President Jacques Chirac's UMP -- suggested on 23 September that Turkey's idea of secularism -- rather than Islam -- might prove a major obstacle to its admission into the EU.
"Historically -- and when I say 'historically,' I mean up until today -- there has been a very strong connection, I would even say complete identification, between [Turkey's] army and secularism," Toubon told reporters in Brussels. "One could even say this has been the main trait of the Turkish system" since the proclamation of the republic in 1923.
Turkish columnist Mehmet Ali Birand, however, argues that only EU membership could help his country be democratic and secular while preserving its religious traditions.
"Neither religious extremists nor fascist-minded brains will be able to rule over a Turkey that is a member of the EU," Ali Birand wrote yesterday in the daily "Milliyet."