Prague, 11 October 2004 -- Confronted with growing criticism both from the opposition and within his own party, President Chirac warned yesterday that Paris could veto Turkey's accession to the European Union.
In an interview given in Beijing to state-owned France 2 television, Chirac said France reserves the right to bar Ankara from joining the bloc if, at any stage of the negotiation process, it believes Turkey is not meeting the democracy standards required for membership.
Chirac said this right -- which applies to every EU country member -- is contained in a report made public last week by the European Commission.
"This report states very clearly -- and France had insisted that this provision be included -- that any country, that France can at any moment withdraw from the treaty [on Turkey's accession], which, since it is a treaty, will have to be approved unanimously and not with a majority -- that it can veto it or reject it. And in that case, the negotiations will stop," Chirac said.
Although Turkey applied for EU membership in 1987, it obtained candidate status only in 1999 -- a delay mainly due to Brussels' concerns over Ankara's poor human rights record.
The European Commission on 6 October recommended the opening of accession talks with Turkey, saying it believes Ankara now meets the bloc's political entry criteria.
Turkey's Islamic-rooted government has accelerated steps toward EU membership since it came to power two years ago. Among other things, it scrapped the death penalty, authorized broadcasts in minority languages and liberalized its criminal code to bring it closer to EU standards.
In view of these changes, the European Commission on 6 October recommended the opening of accession talks with Turkey, saying it believes Ankara now meets the bloc's political entry criteria.
Announcing the decision before the European Parliament, European Commission President Romano Prodi warned Ankara that failure to pursue reforms or implement already voted democratic changes will automatically signal the end of accession talks.
"It must be said with clarity and calmness to our Turkish partners that any interruption on this path toward democracy, toward human rights, toward basic rights and the rule of law as they are practiced in the European Union will bring about an immediate end to the negotiations," Prodi said.
EU leaders are expected to set a date for the opening of entry talks with Ankara when they meet in mid-December in Brussels. It is widely expected, however, that Turkey may only be able to join the bloc in 10 years, at the earliest.
Turkish leaders had initially hoped they would be in a position to join the bloc within the next three to six years, but now seem resigned to the delay. They now say 2014 is a "reasonable date" for Ankara's accession.
Meanwhile, those in Europe who oppose Turkey's entry are disregarding Prodi's warnings, arguing that once the negotiation process is launched, nothing will prevent Ankara from joining.
But Chirac yesterday rejected that claim, saying the French people will be consulted on the issue whenever it is deemed necessary.
"In any case, it is the French people who, if need be, will have the final say through a referendum," Chirac said. "But this issue will not be discussed before 10 or 15 years, at the earliest -- if it is ever discussed."
Last week, the deputy leader of the opposition Socialist Party, Laurent Fabius, and some 50 lawmakers of Chirac's ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) demanded that a parliamentary vote take place before the summit in Brussels on 17 December.
Chirac yesterday pledged that lawmakers will be consulted "before and after 17 December" but rejected the idea of a parliamentary veto prior to the EU summit.
France's government spokesman, Jean-Francois Coppe, said yesterday that nothing justifies a parliamentary vote on the Turkish issue before the EU summit, since France's foreign policy is the constitutional prerogative of its president.
"The president negotiates on behalf of France and, if need be, parliament can only ratify his decision," Coppe said.
But Francois Bayrou, who heads the center-right opposition Union for the French Democracy (UDF), hinted today that Parliament might censure the UMP-dominated government over the issue.
Chirac has repeatedly said he favors Turkey's entry into the EU, provided it meets all criteria required for membership. A majority of French citizens appear to agree with Chirac.
The results of an opinion survey published on 28 September by the center-right "Le Figaro" newspaper showed 63 percent of respondents would not oppose Turkey joining the bloc in the future provided it makes the necessary political and economic steps.