Brussels, 9 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission today warned Turkey to not rest on its laurels after membership talks with the EU were finally launched early last month.
Reviewing the central findings of this year’s European Commission progress reports on Turkey, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn noted "bold and significant" reforms were put in train in Turkey a few years ago. He said these were sufficient to convince the EU that Turkey meets the so-called Copenhagen criteria for membership.
But, Rehn reminded Ankara today, the reforms must be translated into real political change -- which is something Turkey must do faster.
"However, the pace of change has slowed in 2005 this year and even though there is progress in implementation it still remains uneven. Therefore significant further efforts are needed, especially as regards freedom of expression, women’s rights, religious freedoms, trade union rights, and the rights of non-Muslim religious communities," Rehn said.
The decision to open membership talks with Turkey came amidst widespread skepticism of whether its eventual membership is viable.
"Turkey also needs to continue to remedy the situation of those persons prosecuted or sentenced for nonviolent expressions of opinion." -- Olli Rehn
Austria was particularly outspoken in demands that membership be replaced with an offer of a "privileged partnership" and there are reports the Austrian commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, held up agreement on the progress report today.
A number of EU member states will study Turkey’s record very carefully over the coming years. The talks were begun on the assumption that they will be suspended if Turkey breaches the Copenhagen criteria.
Much of the attention is likely to focus on the Turkish judiciary’s interpretation of the recent reforms, which Rehn himself has called "retrograde."
In particular, a Turkish district court’s recent decision to indict the well-known novelist Orhan Pamuk for publicly suggesting Turkey’s Armenian minority suffered a genocide in the early 20th century has caused controversy in the EU.
Rehn said Turkey must amend its laws so that freedom of expression is no longer subject to arbitrary judicial interpretation. "Turkey also needs to continue to remedy the situation of those persons prosecuted or sentenced for nonviolent expressions of opinion," he said. "This is an obvious reference to the case of novelist Orhan Pamuk, who is [being] prosecuted for an expression of nonviolent opinion. But it concerns freedom of expression, not least of journalists in Turkey in general, and therefore this is a very important priority for Turkey to tackle in the short term."
The EU is very unlikely to make the decision to suspend talks with Turkey easily. But skeptical member states will have ample opportunity to put wrenches in the works -- as the negotiations progress, each of the 35 chapters can only be opened and closed with the explicit consent of all EU member states.
The refusal to recognize the Greek government of Cyprus is another issue that could yet scupper Turkey’s membership bid.
The progress report on Croatia is largely favorable. It notes, however, that the country must continue reforming its judiciary, fight corruption, and protect minorities. In particular, Zagreb must maintain full cooperation with the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague in pursuing remaining fugitive indictee Ante Gotovina.
Macedonia’s progress was given the commission’s seal of approval today with the decision that the country is ready for candidate status. This decision must now be approved by all 25 EU member states. Rehn said the country’s success was all the more impressive given it was on the brink of a civil war less than five years ago.
Albania, Bosnia, and Serbia and Montenegro -- although they can all eventually count on EU membership -- were told they still have a long road ahead of them. None comes close to meeting political or economic entry criteria.
In a message that will not be seen as very encouraging in countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, or Moldova, Rehn said the EU now needs to focus on bringing in all those countries which have already been promised membership. The others are unlikely to receive any new commitments in the foreseeable future.
"First of all we need to consolidate our enlargement agenda. In other words we need to be very cautious with any new commitments but at the same time we need to stand by our existing commitments," he said, though he added that the EU’s efforts to apply "soft power" to transform its neighbors will continue.