EU Says Turkey Not Ready for Accession Talks

BRUSSELS (Reuters)–The European Commission dashed Turkey’s hopes of opening accession talks any time soon by saying the country needed to carry out more reforms–according to an annual enlargement report seen by Reuters on Monday.

However–the EU executive upgraded its economic assessment of the 12 other–mostly ex-communist candidate countries–and said 10 of them would be ready to withstand competitive economic pressures inside the European Union by 2004.

Bulgaria–which is not expected to join the bloc before 2007–won long-sought recognition as a "functioning market economy," pushing ahead of its Balkan neighbor Romania.

The Commission commended Turkey’s recent flurry of reforms–including the abolition of the death penalty in peacetime and legislation to extend cultural rights to its Kurdish minority–but made clear it was too early to start accession talks.

"Turkey does not fully meet the political criteria," said the draft report–due to be issued on Wednesday.

Turkey–which faces a general election on November 3–wants EU leaders to set a date for opening membership talks when they meet in Copenhagen in December for a "enlargement" summit. The Commission document did not recommend such a date.

The draft criticized "important restrictions" on freedom of expression–especially in the media–and on freedom of religion–association and peaceful assembly.

CURBING MILITARY

The Commission also urged Turkey to clamp down further on torture and ill-treatment in detention and to establish full civilian control of its powerful military.

The EU should provide more pre-accession aid to Turkey and increase its scrutiny of new Turkish laws–the draft said.

Pro-EU Turkish politicians are likely to be disappointed by the document–which diplomats say could fuel suspicions in Turkey that the bloc is not serious about admitting the large–Muslim country whose borders extend to Iran and Iraq.

The Commission says it applies the same criteria to all candidate countries and that it is in Turkey’s own interests to deepen its political and economic reforms.

In its report–the EU executive also urged Turkey to support a push for a peace settlement in the divided island of Cyprus by the end of the year.

Cyprus is among the 10 candidate countries set to conclude EU accession negotiations in December and to join in 2004.

"The Commission…urges all parties concerned–and in particular Turkey–to lend full support to efforts to reach a comprehensive settlement this year,” the draft said.

It reiterated that the EU would admit the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot part of the divided island on its own if necessary in the absence of a settlement–leaving the breakaway Turkish Cypriots outside.

The Commission said the Turkish Cypriot north of the island would receive considerable EU aid "to catch up" if it reached a deal with the much richer Greek Cypriots in the current United Nations-mediated peace talks.

ECONOMY UPGRADE

On the 10 front-runner candidates–the report struck a positive note–despite lingering fears about their capacity to implement complex and sometimes costly EU laws covering issues ranging from food hygiene to state aid.

"The continuation of their current reform paths should enable them to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union," the draft said.

The 10 are Cyprus–the Czech Republic–Estonia–Hungary–Latvia–Lithuania–Malta–Poland–Slovakia and Slovenia.

The Commission said it would continue to closely monitor their implementation of EU laws until the date of accession.

In a boost for the Bulgarian government headed by Simeon Saxe-Coburg–the former king–the report said country "should be able to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union in the medium-term–provided that it continues implementing its reform programme."

Romania–the slowest of the 12 candidates in negotiations–"continued to make progress towards being a functioning market economy (whose) prospects have improved," the draft said.

The Commission said both Bulgaria and Romania had to work harder to tackle corruption and to improve their antiquated judicial and administrative systems–but it said the EU would "gradually but considerably" increase financial aid to them.

The Commission paper was more cautious on Turkey’s economy–saying it had made progress but was "still undergoing the consequences of two deeply destabilizing financial crises."

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