Three and a half weeks before European Union leaders are expected to endorse the executive bodys recommendation to open membership talks with Turkey at their Dec. 17 summit, the EU pressed the country to step up the pace of legal reforms and hinted that there was still no consensus in the Unions 25 capitals.
The EU's head office on Oct. 6 had recommended the start of EU membership talks for Turkey, but set stiff conditions to prevent it from backtracking on sweeping democratic and human rights reforms. According to one EU official, the decision was reached by a "large consensus" among commissioners, but no vote was taken. There was also no recommended date to start negotiations.
While the recommendation boosted Turkeys long-standing aspirations to join the European club, the commission warned it would suspend or even halt EU membership negotiations over any serious and persistent failure to respect democracy and human rights.
Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul of Turkey insisted that his country had earned the right to begin formal accession negotiations, after last month's report. However, Foreign Minister Ben Bot of the Netherlandswhose country holds the EUs rotating presidency until the end of the yearsaid governments had the last word on whether or not Turkey had fulfilled the criteria for beginning talks, irrespective of the commissions report.
"Let's be clear on this: The member states decide," Bot said at a joint press conference here. "In a number of fields more progress should be made."
According to a report by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) earlier this year, even though there had undeniably been constant improvements in Turkey, the present situation concerning press freedom, religious freedom and respect of minority rights is far from perfect.
Police still routinely ill-treat detainees, and reports of outright torture in police custody persist. Prosecutors continue to indict writers and politicians who express a religious or ethnic perspective on politics, charging them with racial or religious hatred, as well as insulting state institutions.
The International Herald Tribune reported that Bot said it would be "helpful" if Turkey passed draft laws on criminal procedures and judicial policing over the next three and a half weeks. In addition, he urged Ankara to implement four other pieces of legislation that have been approved by Parliament.
EU political leaders are expected to endorse the executive's recommendation at their Dec. 17 summit, however, public opinion in most of the EU's 25 member states is deeply opposed to Turkey joining the club, the Chicago Tribune reported Friday. Surveys indicate that a referendum on Turkish membership would fail in every major EU country.
Two years ago when former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing headed the committee that drafted the proposed EU constitution, he warned that admitting Turkey would mean "the end of the European Union." Turkey, he said, has "a different culture, a different approach, a different way of life."
Certainly, a country that is 99.8 percent Muslim, has 95 percent of it territory in Asia and shares borders with Iraq, Syria and Iran stretches the definition of "European," the Chicago Tribune reported.
Turkey's sheer size is another concern, the news agency wrote. With a population of nearly 70 million, Turkey already eclipses France and Britain, and at its current growth rate it will overtake Germany, the EU's most populous member, in the next two decades. Under the EU's system of proportional representation, Turkey would have the most votes.
Despite those fears, Turkey has supporters in Europe who point out that attempting to maintain the EU as a Christian club is a dubious policy for an increasingly multiethnic continent.
Advocates argue that taking a Muslim country into the predominantly Christian EU would be an important geopolitical gesture at a time when conflict in various parts of the Middle East has pitted Western countries against the Islamic world and helped spark terrorism. They say the EU can export its stability and democracy to Turkey, a gateway to several hot spots in the Middle East and the Caucasus.
However, these thoughts come at a time when France, Germany, the Netherlands and other West European nations are struggling to integrate their ever-enlarging Muslim communities.
Most recently, tensions in the Netherlands have risen as fears of Islamic extremism permeated through the country following the Nov. 2 killing of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a suspected Muslim radical. Since the murder, there have been more than 20 incidents of fires and vandalism at Muslim buildingsand a handful of retaliatory attacks on Christian churches.
Van Goghs murder also brought calls for a crackdown on fundamentalists and renegade preachers.