Prodi: No EU Preferential Treatment to Turkey

BERLIN (Reuters)–European Commission President Romano Prodi urged EU leaders not to give Turkey preferential treatment in its bid to join the European Union and said EU expansion should be limited–a German paper said on Wednesday.

"We agreed clear and unalterable conditions for the start of negotiations in 1993 which apply to Turkey as much as to other countries,” Prodi told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in an interview printed on Wednesday.

"If we mess with that we endanger our credibility for our citizens and for every country that is similarly hoping to become a member one day,” he said.

EU foreign ministers overwhelmingly backed a Franco-German proposal on Tuesday to open membership talks with Turkey in 2005 if it passes a review in 2004.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told reporters EU president Denmark would use it as a basis for an agreement at the Copenhagen summit on Thursday and Friday.

Prodi said Turkey’s plans to strengthen democracy and the rule of law were encouraging–but stressed the execution of such plans–not the text of proposed legal changes–was essential.

He said it was of no concern that Turkey–which would be the EU’s second largest member after Germany–was a Muslim country.

"The EU is by definition worldly and pluralistic. What is important is that the state is not dominated by one religious persuasion,” the Commission president said.

Prodi also said the EU and its neighbors must recognize the EU could not expand indefinitely.

"The union cannot expand without limits,” he said. Prodi said the EU was not a free trade zone that every country could enter–but a grouping of similar countries and peoples. However–Prodi said the European Union could set its borders and cooperate with a ring

of countries outside–such as Russia–Ukraine–Israel and the countries around the Mediterranean.

Prodi insisted an expanded EU did not have to lead to an unwieldy Commission. Prodi said a reduced Commission in which not all potential 25 members were represented as plausible.

"That could mean a rotation system in which no one was disadvantaged,” Prodi said.

BUSH RELENTLESSLY MEDDLES IN EU AFFAIRS

US President George W. Bush called Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rassmussen–who will host the two-day EU summit on Thursday–to discuss the EU’s relationship with Turkey. Bush urged the body to embrace Turkey as a future member–on the eve of a landmark summit to expand the bloc beyond the old Iron Curtain.

Muslim Turkey’s long-standing EU application has been on ice for years–but Bush’s lobbying for an ally he sees as vital in any military campaign against Iraq has given Ankara fresh hope of winning a firm date to open EU accession talks.

Bush met Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader Tayyip Erdogan in Washington on Tuesday and said the US stood side-by-side with Ankara in its endeavor to join the EU.

"Rasmussen has had a telephone call from…Bush. The topic of the conversation was Turkey’s future relationship with the EU,” the Danish prime minister’s office said in a statement.

Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul said he expected nothing less than a firm date for talks next year–but most EU states back a Franco-German plan to open talks with Ankara in mid-2005–if Turkey passes a late-2004 human rights and democracy review.

EU diplomats were also trying to secure a peace plan for the militarily divided eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus–one of 10 candidates on course to join the expanding bloc.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan–who has sent a revised plan to Cyprus’s feuding Greek and Turkish leaders–persuaded Erdogan to send Turkish Cypriot representatives to Copenhagen for last-ditch talks on the sidelines of the EU summit.

Diplomats hope the Greek and Turkish Cypriots will sign a framework accord for a political settlement on the island so that it joins the EU in May 2004 as a reunited single entity.

Cyprus has been divided since Turkey invaded the north in 1974 in response to a pro-Greek coup in Nicosia engineered by Greece’s then-ruling military junta. If there is a deal–the Copenhagen summit could go down in history not only for concluding the EU’s biggest enlargement–and erasing the Cold War divide–but also as a turning point in ties with Turkey.

HARD BARGAINING

Rasmussen remained confident the summit could wrap up the final details of the bloc’s ambitious eastward enlargement–but he warned candidates like Poland–which is pressing for more money when it joins the EU–that it risks missing the boat.

"All in all–I’m optimistic we can take this historic decision in Copenhagen,” he told Reuters.

"I envisage difficult negotiations but will stress that we will conclude with those ready–and I will not guarantee that 10 new countries will be on board on Friday,” he warned.

EU leaders are set for a bruising summit battle with leading candidates–Poland–Hungary–the Czech Republic–Slovakia–Slovenia–Estonia–Lithuania–Latvia–Cyprus and Malta–over the final financial terms for entry.

They should also endorse the goal of Romania and Bulgaria to join in 2007–if they are ready.

Poland has led deman’s that the EU offer new members the full 42.5 billion Euros ($43 billion) originally budgeted for enlargement in 1999.

A "final” Danish offer falls two billion short of that–but the EU’s main net contributors–notably Germany–say they can no longer afford more because of an economic slowdown and severe pressure on their budgets.

At a news conference in Brussels–Prodi urged EU members to show flexibility–telling them not to overlook the fact they were gaining new markets on the cheap.

"Obviously there is still a lot of work that remains to be done. It is going to be a tough Council (EU summit),” he said.

"My message for Copenhagen is very simple: enlargement as an objective is too important and must not be compromised by inflexible positions adopted at the last minute–or by extremely specific interests being pushed forward.”

His plea risked falling on deaf ears as some candidates vowed to press on for more money.

Poland’s chief negotiator Jan Truszczynski told public radio he expected the EU to budge a little more–and a Hungarian diplomat–who asked not to be named–said he was sure the EU had room to improve the financial offer to eastern farmers.

"It’s just a question of (German Chancellor Gerhard) Schroeder’s people digging a little deeper into their pockets,” the Hungarian said.

A German government source–however–warned bluntly that there would be no more money beyond what was in the Danish plan.

Czech farmers said they would block border crossings to Germany and Austria on Thursday in protest against what they call crippling EU entry terms.

The summit formally opens at 6 p.m. (1800 GMT) on Thursday–and could well spill over into Saturday.

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