EU easing tone with Turkey, while still seeking reforms

October 27, 2007 - 0:0

STRASBOURG (AFP) -- The European Commission and parliament signaled a new more positive strategy for EU-hopeful Turkey, swapping threats for encouragement, while still seeking political reforms.

""The Commission shares the basic approach of the parliament, which is to identify challenges and to encourage Turkey to meet these challenges,"" EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said during a debate in the Strasbourg chamber.
The new mood was exemplified when members of the European Parliament decided not to explicitly call on Ankara to recognize the Armenian genocide of 1915, merely calling on both sides to engage in ""a process of reconciliation"".
Rehn indicated that his annual report on Turkey's progress towards the EU, to be delivered on November 6, would be ""objective and fair"".
Last year's very critical version led to the freezing of eight of the 35 policy chapters which EU candidate nations must successfully negotiate prior to membership.
Since Ankara began talks with the European Union in October 2005, the talks have been severely hampered by Ankara's refusal to deal normally with EU member Cyprus -- which is split into Greek and Turkish sectors.
Turkey has managed to open just four accession chapters, only one of which has been satisfactorily completed.
That figure pales next to the 14 chapters opened with Croatia, which began its EU talks at the same time as Turkey.
However, in keeping with the encouraging tone, Rehn announced that ""at least two chapters could be open in the coming weeks,"" despite French President Nicolas Sarkozy's repeated suggestion that Turkey does not culturally belong in the European Union.
Rehn said both the EU and Turkey had ""to do what they've got to do"".
""That means when we are firm we also must be fair, we have to keep our word and stick to accession perspective,"" he said.
The EU change of tone follows a popular vote in Turkey on Sunday which approved sweeping constitutional reforms.
The reforms provide for the head of state to be elected by popular suffrage for a once-renewable five-year term, instead of being chosen by parliament for a single seven-year mandate.
It also sets legislative elections every four years instead of the current five.
""The Commission welcomes the fact that the government has put the constitutional reform at the top of its agenda with a view to improving democracy and expanding individual freedoms,"" said Rehn.
""However this should not result in any postponement of reforms that are urgently needed today,"" he added.
High on the EU's reform wish list is the infamous Article 301 of Turkey's penal code.
This outlaws insults on ""Turkish identity"" and has led to criminal charges against dozens of intellectuals.
The EU's executive arm also insists on improvements on religious freedoms, military control of civil authorities and the fight against corruption.
Turning to more urgent matters, the EU's Portuguese presidency urged Turkey to think twice before launching military action in northern Iraq, following deadly attacks on Turkish troops from Kurdish rebels in the region.
""It's important that the international community supports Turkey in its efforts to counter terrorism, in respect of the law, without risking the stability of the region and the whole continent,"" Portuguese European Affairs Minister Manuel Lobo Antunes told the European parliament in Strasbourg.
However for the EU, Cyprus remains the elephant in the room and no matter how far Turkey comes along the membership road it won't be able to join the club until that problem is sorted.
So far Ankara refuses to respect the protocol which extended Turkey's customs union with the EU to the 10 nations which joined the bloc in May 2004 -- including the divided island of Cyprus.