Turkey’s Prosecution of Dissidents Raises Concerns about EU Membership

(Bloomberg/Reuters)–Turkey’s prosecution of dissident authors threatens to raise new obstacles to its bid for European Union membership only three months after the start of entry talks–EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said.

Turkey’s progress toward building a western-style democracy with freedom-of-speech protections has slacked since the talks began in October–making 2006 a crucial test for the country’s quest to join the EU–Rehn said.

"There is a clear risk that we have a period of difficulties with Turkey unless the reform process will be relaunched with full speed," Rehn said in an interview Thursday in Brussels.

Turkey has raised hackles with European civil libertarians by taking legal action against critics–including the prosecution of novelist Orhan Pamuk for speaking up about the Armenian genocide.

"It is not Orhan Pamuk who is on trial but it is Turkey," said Rehn. "Turkey would do a great service to itself and to Europe if it would apply European standards of freedom of expression. These are issues which are non-negotiable."

Rehn said his message to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government "is starting to get across."

The Turkish government will decide next month whether to press ahead with the trial–which was suspended in December. Prosecutors are also weighing a case against European Parliament member Joost Lagendijk for accusing the Turkish military of exercising undue influence in politics.

"I have encouraged the Turkish authorities to make it clear to all the prosecutors and judges that the new penal code must be interpreted in line with the European Convention on Human Rights," Rehn said. "If there is no progress in the Pamuk case or in other cases–that is bound to have a negative impact on the accession negotiations."

Turkey’s bid to become the 25-nation EU’s first Muslim member has sparked public opposition across Europe–with only 31 percent of the bloc’s 450 million citizens in favor–an EU-sponsored poll shows.

Rehn blamed Europe’s 8.5 percent unemployment rate and an economic growth pace that trailed behind the US for eight of the last 10 years for sowing "enlargement blues" after the EU brought in 10 mostly ex-communist countries in 2004.

Backing for further expansion–starting with Romania and Bulgaria next year–slipped to 49 percent from 50 percent–the EU’s October-November poll of 25,000 people showed. Rehn–Finland’s representative on the European Commission–will recommend in May whether to delay Romania’s and Bulgaria’s entry until 2008.

Germany’s new chancellor–Angela Merkel–backed a looser "privileged partnership" with Turkey during last year’s election campaign–and French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said the EU should shut the door after letting in Romania and Bulgaria.

Sarkozy–a presidential hopeful for 2007–urged the European Union on Thursday not to admit any new member states until the 25-nation bloc has reformed its institutions.

In an apparent reference to Turkey’s membership bid–which he opposes–Sarkozy said "I think it necessary not to proceed with any new enlargemen’s as long as new institutions have not been adopted."

"I also want a process started by the European Union to work out the status of a strategic partnership … (for) those countries who won’t be able to become a member."

Sarkozy also proposed drawing up a revised–shorter text of the EU’s draft constitution which French voters rejected in a referendum in May.

Opposition to large and mainly Muslim Turkey joining the EU was widely seen as one of the reasons why French voters opposed the constitution–intended to streamline EU institutions and make decision-making easier following the Union’s 2004 eastwards enlargement.

EU governmen’s battled last year over how to finance economic development in eastern Europe–still shaking off the legacy of communism. Turkey–with about 70 million people–is poorer still–with per capita gross domestic product at 29 percent of the bloc’s average–EU data show.

While Turkey’s EU entry is at least a decade away–the talks could also be unhinged by renewed tensions between Turkey and Cyprus–the Mediterranean island whose northern tier has been occupied by Turkey since 1974.

Turkey’s entry talks were tied to a promise to free up trade with Cyprus–by opening Turkish airports and harbors to Cypriot planes and cargo ships. Refusal to do so could torpedo the entry talks–the EU Parliament warned in September.

"We expect that Turkey will now without unnecessary delay pursue this objective," Rehn said. By November–when the commission issues its next progress report–"there must be concrete progress and no backtracking in the reform process," he said.

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