Chirac Promises Turkey EU Referendum

STRASBOURG (Reuters)–President Jacques Chirac has promised to hold a referendum on Turkey’s entry to the European Union if the bloc agrees to its accession–despite the risk that France could block its membership.

Bowing to political pressure for French people to have a say on Turkey–Chirac said he had urged the government to propose changes to France’s constitution so that referendums have to be held on any other future enlargement of the 25-member bloc.

His call is likely to alarm Ankara and could cause concern among all prospective EU members.

"Let me reassure you right away–the French people will have their say," Chirac told a news conference following talks with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Strasbourg in eastern France on Friday.

A referendum is unlikely for more than a decade. But an opinion poll this week showed 56 percent of French people oppose Turkey’s immediate entry due to fears on jobs and concerns about letting in a mainly Muslim country that links Europe to Asia.

Chirac’s ruling conservative party has also opposed Ankara’s candidacy and called for a referendum–even though the president supports Turkey’s accession.

Chirac’s promises of a public vote are intended to prevent voters’ concerns over Turkey clouding a referendum next year on the EU constitution and increasing the chances of France rejecting the treaty–a vote which could torpedo it.

Chirac gave no details of the changes he wanted in France’s constitution–apart from saying votes on future EU enlargement should be put to a public vote.

"It would be compulsory to ask the French people via a referendum on this enlargement or any other possible enlargemen’s–and not via the parliamentary process," he said–

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The European Commission is expected to recommend in a report on Wednesday that the EU opens entry talks with Turkey. A final decision will be taken when EU leaders meet in December; the accession talks would be expected to last for several years.

There was no referendum in France before the EU expanded to 25 members in May. French people are concerned that France’s influence in the EU has been diluted by enlargement and that the entry of a country of 71 million people will water it down more.

Chirac said he and Schroeder agreed that Turkey had made a lot of progress by introducing democratic and economic reforms but had not yet fulfilled all the terms for entry.

"We have an interest in having Turkey with us," Chirac said. "It creates a prospect of democracy and peace taking root on the whole of the European continent … so that we avoid the mistakes and violence of the past."

France’s foreign and finance ministers–both of whom are members of Chirac’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party–have in the past few days proposed holding a referendum on Turkey’s entry when the time comes.

There is some hope for Turkey. This week’s poll showed 63 percent of French could one day foresee Turkey’s accession.

Chirac did not make clear whether he wanted changes made to France’s constitution in time for a further enlargement expected to take in Romania and Bulgaria in 2007. Croatia is expected to join the bloc soon after Romania and Bulgaria.

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