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Turkey: European Commission Chief Begins Historic Visit To Ankara

The president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, begins a two-day visit to Turkey today. Officials say his visit -- the first of its kind for 40 years -- is intended to give Turkey an encouraging signal before the Commission rules on its candidacy this autumn. Although the Commission appears to consider Turkey's recent progress in meeting membership criteria promising, the quick reunification of Cyprus may be necessary before European Union member states can endorse it.

Brussels, 15 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's long wait for a European welcome may be drawing to a close. Forty years after the signing of the Ankara Treaty in 1963, which first recognized Turkey's membership aspirations, the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, arrives in Ankara today for a historic visit.

He will be accompanied by Guenter Verheugen, the commissioner in charge of enlargement. A decision on whether to launch accession talks with Turkey is Verheugen's final major task before the present commission steps down in October. Verheugen's spokesman, Jean-Christophe Filori, yesterday underlined the significance of the trip and made it clear that -- for now, at least -- it's all good news for Turkey.

"First of all, it has to be underlined that this is the first visit [to Turkey] by a commission president since 1963, which shows the importance given today to Turkey by the commission. Mr. Prodi will reiterate the strong wish of the EU to welcome Turkey as an equal and respected member of the European Union, [and] we'll praise Turkey for the progress made in [its] reform process to meet the EU accession criteria," Filori said.

However, Filori said Turkey needs to do more before the commission can recommend the initiation of talks. He referred reporters to the commission's progress report on Turkey last November, before reiterating the most acute problems. "There are several issues; I will not outline them all. [They] range from the independence and functioning of the judiciary to the situation in the [Kurdish areas of the] southeast and the concrete implementation of the reforms that were announced [last year]," he said. Asked whether it is feasible for Turkey to remedy these shortcoming in time for the commission assessment, Filori said it is "certainly" possible.

If Turkey's candidacy has an Achilles' heel, it's not so much a lack of reform as the still-unresolved issue of Cyprus. The island remains divided between Greek and Turkish communities. The EU has always said it would prefer to accept a unified island, and Filori said the commission president will once again strongly make that point when he arrives in Ankara today. "As far as Cyprus is concerned, Mr. Prodi will also repeat the strong preference of the EU to see [a] united island joining the EU by 1 May 2004, which [pre]supposes an agreement beforehand and, of course, an agreement within the framework of the UN peace plan," he said.

The commission has been cautiously optimistic of progress since legislative elections in the northern, Turkish-ruled part of the island late last year. Yesterday, Filori said it is a "positive development" that the Turkish community now has a government "able to function with a clear target to resume talks" for the reunification of the island on the basis of a UN peace plan.

In 2002, Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash rejected a plan sponsored by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. But, Filori said, the EU is "waiting for deeds" before drawing any conclusions. He said, however, that should the Turkish Cypriot community decide to agree to a deal on reunification, there are no obstacles for it to implement EU law from 1 May. In 2002, at its Copenhagen summit, the bloc also set aside 206 million euros for northern Cyprus for 2004 to 2006. Filori said the money is still there, adding that "there is no need for new negotiations" to include northern Cyprus.

Filori said a settlement between the two communities is not a "condition as such for Turkey" to be able to launch accession negotiations. Nevertheless, Filori said, without reunification, member states such as Greece and the Greek part of Cyprus itself, recognized by the EU as the only legitimate government on the island, could veto closer ties with Turkey. He said this might happen because "there would be several member states in the EU that would not find it right to open negotiations with a country that, to put it mildly, exerts effective control through permanent troops in one part of [one of] our member states. So it would be politically very difficult."

Filori said that, regardless of what the commission decides in October, the "last word belongs to member states."

Today's visit comes barely two months before the commission has to decide whether to begin accession talks with Croatia, which is seen by Turkey as having jumped the queue. Speaking in Strasbourg yesterday, Prodi denied that the EU is favoring other prospective candidates over Turkey.

Prodi and Verheugen will today and tomorrow meet the Turkish president and prime minister, as well as other ministers and leading members of parliament.