Italy’s Berlusconi Urges Talk Date

SKOPJE (Reuters)–Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Friday the European Union should not delay the start of talks on the accession of Turkey to the bloc beyond 2003.

Speaking at a news conference in Skopje–Berlusconi said the issue of when talks should begin with Ankara–which Brussels has been reluctant to agree to–should be discussed at the EU summit in Copenhagen on December 12.

"One might even set a date to discuss about beginning of negotiations which in my opinion should not be postponed beyond 2003," he said.

Berlusconi–who shortly after the September 11 attacks on the United States denigrated Islam–saying it was inferior to the West–was in the Macedonian capital for a meeting of the Italian-sponsored Central European Initiative.

He said Turkey was a front-line country between Europe and the Muslim world and stressed its importance as the model of a secular Muslim state.

"We also need to evaluate the importance of Turkey as a model of a secular state vis a vis other Muslim states," Berlusconi said.

"This is a development that all Muslim countries must undergo," he said.

Secular Turkey–which is the only Muslim member of NATO and occupies a strategic position in the Middle East–recently elected the Islam-inspired Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in its first single-party government in 15 years. It has been criticized by the EU for human rights violations.

AKP leader Tayyip Erdogan–who met Berlusconi in Rome this week as part of a tour of EU countries–cannot himself take the position of prime minister–having been banned from the November 3 elections because of a past conviction for Islamist sedition. But he has already made clear he will be the force behind the new government.

Turkey–which is struggling to overcome an economic crisis with the help of a $16 billion rescue programme from the International Monetary Fund–wants the EU to set a date for the start of entry talks at the Copenhagen summit.

Progress towards membership–however far away entry might be–could draw urgently needed foreign investment into the crisis-wracked country where Erdogan has pledged to push ahead with economic reforms.

The Copenhagen summit’s main purpose is to complete negotiations with 10 countries–most of them in central Europe–on their accession to the EU in 2004.

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