Turkish Parliament Delays EU Reforms to September

Cem Compares Turkish Islamists to Neo-Nazis

ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkish government leaders agreed on Tuesday that the parliamentary summer break would start next week–delaying debate of a long-awaited constitutional amendment package until September.

The package includes amendmen’s vital to Turkey’s European Union membership aspirations such as making legal bans on political parties more difficult and ending the death penalty. The country must make reforms to meet EU criteria before becoming a member.

Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit and his coalition partners nationalist leader Devlet Bahceli and conservative Mesut Yilmaz last week tried to secure parliamentary approval for the amendmen’s before a court ruling on the fate of the Islam-based Virtue Party.

The Constitutional Court–however–said the amendmen’s would not affect Virtue and banned the main opposition party last Friday for being a center of anti-secular activities.

Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz said parliament would begin debating the constitutional amendmen’s package on September 17 in an emergency session. Parliament is expected to vote to go on summer break this Friday.

It has completed the vast majority of reform bills pledged to the IMF in return for the next $1.5 billion installment of a $15.7 billion IMF and World Bank crisis lending package.

The European Union’s top official for enlargement on Tuesday urged Turkey to amend its constitution to prevent any future bans on political parties. “Even if this decision is in accordance with the Turkish constitution and laws–the (European) Commission is concerned about the implications of this ruling for democratic pluralism and freedom of opinion in Turkey,” Guenter Verheugen said.

“It is important that the process of constitutional reform continues in Turkey in line with (EU political standards). This includes the treatment of political parties in accordance with practice in the European Union,” he told reporters.

Verheugen–European Commissioner for Enlargement–made his commen’s after talks in Luxembourg with Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem.

Turkey was accepted as a candidate in 1999 but has yet to begin negotiations because of concerns over its human rights record and its commitment to democratic values.

Cem said Turkey was working on constitutional amendmen’s to bring it more into line with EU legislation on political parties–but he also defended existing restrictions–comparing Turkish Islamists to neo-Nazi groups in some EU states.

“Many countries face a special threat to public order. In several European countries–this threat is defined as a neo-Nazi threat…In my country we don’t have a problem of neo-Nazis but the problem of exploiting people’s religious feelings with a view to changing the political regime,” Cem said.

“We consider that as a threat,” he said–but added that Turkey–proud of its secular political system–nevertheless remained committed to liberalizing its laws in this area.

Verheugen said the EU and Turkey had also discussed Cyprus and regional troublespots like Macedonia during Tuesday’s talks. He urged Turkey to use the “window of opportunity” to help resolve the political division of Cyprus before the island’s expected accession to the EU in the next few years.

The EU says Cyprus can join even without a resolution of the decades-old conflict between its internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government and the Turkish-occupied part of the island. But the EU would prefer a swift resolution if possible.

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