EU Won’t Cut Key Ally Turkey Any Slack on Reform

ANKARA (Reuters)–The European Union will not cut Turkey any slack on reforms because of its strategic value as a moderate Muslim candidate country in a difficult neighborhood–the European Commission’s top man in Ankara said on Wednesday.

Turkey–still reeling from weekend bomb attacks on two Istanbul synagogues–has often urged the EU to take into account its unique position as a secular Muslim democracy and NATO ally in deciding whether to open membership talks.

The synagogue attacks–in which 25 Jews and Muslims were killed–underlined Turkey’s vulnerability as a frontline state in the "war on terrorism" and prompted renewed calls from some Turkish commentators for an early date from the EU.

"Yes–Turkey is important geopolitically–it is a crucial ally at the junction of Europe and the Middle East. But the effective functioning of the EU is what is important here,” said Hansjoerg Kretschmer–head of the Turkey office of the Commission–the EU’s executive arm.

"No concessions can be made [for Turkey]…This is not bad faith. The EU is not a Christian club–but Turkey has to firmly embrace our values and give us the confidence to believe it has gone beyond the point of no-return [with reforms].”

"Today Turkey is not at that point," he told Reuters. Turkey has sometimes complained that the EU does not really want to admit it because its population is 98 percent Muslim.

EU leaders are due to decide in December 2004 whether Ankara has met the wealthy bloc’s standards on democracy and human rights and is ready to begin what are sure to be lengthy and difficult accession negotiations.

In its annual progress report–published this month–the Commission praised Turkey’s recent flurry of human rights reforms but said they must now be fully implemented.

Turkey–with a relatively youthful population of 70 million–has nearly as many people as the combined total of the 10 mostly eastern European countries due to join the EU next May.

"Indeed–to take in a country of this size–this weight–is more risky than taking in a country of two million," Kretschmer said.

RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE?

"Our criteria are not negotiable. By the end of next year we have to see that Turkey not only has the intention of living by EU rules but proof that it has really turned the corner in respect of human rights–the rule of law–respect for minorities and so forth," said Kretschmer–a German national.

The Istanbul attacks did reveal another aspect of Turkish society — its historic tolerance of Jews and warm ties with Israel. Jews found refuge in Turkey when European nations — such as mediaeval Spain and Nazi Germany — persecuted them. While acknowledging Turkey’s historic role as a bridge between cultures and faiths–Kretschmer said the Commission’s report had faulted Ankara on its treatment of religious minorities–citing obstacles to the training of Christian clergy and the blocking of church property claims.

For example–Turkish officials argue that they cannot reopen a Greek Orthodox seminary near Istanbul closed in 1971 because it conflicts with Turkey’s rigorously secular constitution.

"This is not convincing… A country like Turkey–with its overwhelmingly Muslim population–should have the strength–the confidence to offer a chance to its non-Muslim minorities to worship [in complete freedom]," Kretcshmer said.

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