Prague, 13 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- European Union leaders today formally approved a December 2004 review date for Turkey's candidacy. The decision came at the EU summit in Copenhagen to deal with its historic eastward enlargement.
Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson said the decision is "not negotiable." If Turkey passes the review, he added, entry negotiations are likely to begin soon afterwards.
The president of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, called the EU offer "a significant deepening" of EU-Turkey relations. "With regard to Turkey, I believe that the decision, which has been arrived at, is itself a significant measurable and visible deepening of the EU-Turkey engagement and is, for Turkey, the most visible marker on its road to European Union membership in more than four decades."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair defined the move as a positive step for Turkey, which became an official candidate for EU membership in 1999. "It's the first time a firm date has really been given for Turkey, and it's important to emphasize that it's not a question of whether negotiations are open with Turkey. If they pass the criteria, they [the negotiations] will be open with Turkey, and I think that's a very important step forward."
The move confirms last night's announcement by Anders Fogh Rasmussen -- the prime minister of Denmark, which currently holds the EU presidency -- saying that if Turkey is judged in December 2004 as meeting the EU's political criteria, membership talks with Ankara would begin as soon as possible. "If the European Council in December 2004, on the basis of a report and the recommendations from the commission, decides that Turkey fulfils the Copenhagen political criteria, the European Union will open accession negotiations with Turkey."
The EU, Rasmussen stressed, acknowledges the "strong determination" of the Turkish government to carry through "fundamental" social reforms.
Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul, who held a series of meetings with EU leaders on the margins of the summit to push for a 2003 date to start Turkey's entry negotiations, today expressed disappointment with the offer during a news conference in Copenhagen. "We have done what we were supposed to do to receive an earlier negotiation date, but it seems this negotiation date will come at a later date than we expected, namely, at the end of 2004."
Gul ensured, however, that regardless to the EU decision, his government will continue with economic and social reforms. "Turkey's path is clear. We will continue with the reform packages and human rights and implementing economic standards and reforms, regardless of our relations with the European Union. The Turkish nation deserves these [reforms] and these reforms are being done just for this."
Turkey's government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- which swept to victory in 3 November polls -- has pushed for the adoption of a series of democratic and human rights reforms to try to meet the so-called "Copenhagen criteria" on EU membership.
AKP Chairman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking today after a meeting with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, described the discussion as "friendly," and said Ankara is pursuing reforms not only in order to join the EU but also for its own national interests.
Several EU members, including Britain and Italy, had hoped for an earlier date than 2005, which had been cited in a conditional proposal by Paris and Berlin for Ankara. Turkey is the biggest of all 13 EU candidates, with a population of 70 million.