EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, at a news conference in Brussels, said Turkey’s reform drive had slowed over the past year. And he indicated the country needs to do more, especially in the area of freedom of speech and in its approach to Cyprus, if it wants to progress toward eventual inclusion in the bloc.
Before speaking about Turkey, Rehn made it clear the bloc will not be accepting more new members any time soon.
Rehn said current EU members must first decide on institutional reforms to improve the workings of an already-expanded bloc. And it remains unclear when that will happen -- especially after the rejection of the EU’s draft constitution by French and Dutch voters last year.
In that context, Rehn underlined that Turkey still had a long way to go on the road to EU membership.
"We state clearly in our progress report on Turkey that further reforms are needed, in particular, to ensure the freedom of expression and other fundamental freedoms," he said.
Rehn specifically mentioned what he called the “infamous” Article 301 of Turkey’s Penal Code, which makes it a crime to insult “Turkishness.” The article has been used to prosecute several writers and journalists, including this year's Nobel Literature Prize winner Orhan Pamuk.
Rehn said the European Commission expected Ankara to follow through on moves to amend the law.
"Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has invited civil-society organizations to propose amendments to the Penal Code [on freedom of expression], which is a welcome initiative," Rehn said. "We expect that words lead to deeds and without unnecessary delay."
Rehn also touched on the issue of Cyprus. The commission’s report criticizes Ankara for keeping its ports closed to Cypriot ships.
The Greek Cypriot-controlled Republic of Cyprus became an EU member in 2004. But Turkey refuses to normalize relations with it and retains control of the northern part of the island.
Since the Republic of Cyprus has veto power over Turkey’s eventual EU accession, Ankara cannot hope to win membership until that issue is resolved.
Rehn warned today that unless goodwill is shown by all sides, the issue could continue to be an insurmountable problem for a long time.
"This is likely to be the last opportunity to make real, serious progress for some years to come on the issue of Cyprus," Rehn warned.
Slow Progress, But Progress Still
Despite’s Rehn’s critical tone, he said it would be wrong to say that Turkey had backtracked on reforms.
"In the public debate, one may get the impression that Turkey [is] backtracking on the reforms," Rehn said. "This is not the case. Turkey has continued political reforms, even though their pace has slowed down during the past year."
Rehn said the best way forward was to continue the accession dialogue with Turkey, setting firm conditions, but rewarding Ankara when those conditions are met.
"I am often asked, 'What is the best strategy for the European Union to deal with Turkey?' My response is that, simply, we should be both fair and firm," he said. "We should be fair and keep our commitment to give Turkey the chance to show whether it can meet the accession criteria. We should be firm and apply rigorous conditionality, which is the driver of reforms and modernization toward a more European Turkey."
Opposition To Turkey
Rehn criticized the increasingly loud voices in some European countries seeking to torpedo Turkey’s EU ambitions.
"Those who continuously question Turkey's EU accession perspective are creating a vicious circle of reversed commitment, weakened conditionality, and stalled reforms," he said. "Instead, by keeping our word and sticking to the accession perspective, we can create a virtuous circle of credible commitment, rigorous conditionality and reinforced reforms. That means a more European Turkey."
In response to public opinion in several EU countries, there appears to be growing opposition to allowing Turkey to join the EU. Leading French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, if he is elected next year, has made clear he will oppose Ankara’s bid.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel also recently suggested that Turkey should only be a “privileged partner” of the EU -- and not a full member.
Within Turkey itself, there is a growing backlash to Europe’s cold shoulder -- with public support for membership now below 50 percent according to opinion polls.
There is concern that could lead to a fragmentation of the pro-Europe political consensus, ahead of next year’s Turkish general elections.
For now, that has not happened.
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said today his country remains determined to meet all the European Union's requirements on democratic reform and succeed in membership talks.
EU Expands Eastward
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