Turkish President Vetoes EU-Sought Religion Law

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer vetoed an EU-inspired law to improve the property rights of non-Muslims, the president’s office said on Wednesday. Sezer, a staunch secularist, sent the law back to parliament for nine articles to be reviewed, the president’s office said. The ruling came on the day the European Commission recommended suspending some parts of Turkey’s accession talks because of its failure to open its ports to EU member Cyprus. The so-called foundations law, which fell short of European Union expectations, affects Greek Orthodox, Syrian and Armenian communities, and was approved after months of fierce debate in officially secular but predominantly Muslim Turkey. Nationalists were concerned the law would give non-Muslim minorities — seen by some as foreign in the case of the Greek Orthodox Church — more influence in Turkey. Sezer, who is sometimes wary of EU-inspired reforms which he fears could weaken the state or its secular structure, often vetoes legislation, which the AK Party dominated parliament can overturn. The European Commission recommended a partial suspension of EU accession talks with Turkey on Wednesday, dealing a blow to Ankara’s hope of joining the European Union after it refused to open its ports to Cyprus. The EU executive said this covered talks on eight of the 35 policy areas or "chapters" into which the entry talks are divided and it was recommending no chapter be closed until the Cyprus issue was resolved. Turkish television channels quoted Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan as saying the recommendation was "unacceptable."We confirm these negotiations must continue although at slower pace," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said. "There will be no train crash. There is a slowing down because of works further down the tracks. However, the train continues to move." Many EU governmen’s are worried about the prospect of the predominantly Muslim and comparatively poor country joining the Union. The French and German leaders welcomed the decision but Britain’s prime minister expressed concern. The Commission took its decision after the latest round of talks on the Cyprus stand-off failed on Monday. EU foreign ministers will formally decide whether to back the recommendation on December 11. Rehn said Turkey could yet score "a golden goal" by complying with its commitmen’s before the EU ministers meeting. The sectors to be frozen touch on free movement of goods, the right of establishment and freedom to provide services, financial services, agriculture, fisheries, transport policy, customs union and foreign relations, the Commission said. So far, Turkey has provisionally concluded just one chapter — science and research. Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 in response to a Greek Cypriot coup backed by Greece’s then ruling military junta and it does not recognize Cyprus. Ankara backs a Turkish Cypriot mini-state in the north, which it alone recognizes. Turkey has said it will open its ports to shipping from Cyprus only if the EU fulfills a pledge to end the economic isolation of Turkish Cypriot northern Cyprus, which the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government in Nicosia has blocked. In a sign of how Turkey and the EU remain at odds on issues such as political and media freedoms, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer vetoed a law required by Brussels which would improve the property rights of non-Muslim religious minorities. Parliament approved the law this month but it fell short of EU expectations. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the European Commission’s decision showed Turkey had to honor its agreement with the EU to open sea and air ports to Cyprus, called the Ankara protocol. "The Commission proposal is a strong signal that the Ankara protocol has to be accepted by Turkey," she told reporters in Riga, where she was attending a NATO summit. Merkel also called for better checks on Turkey’s progress in the talks and a review within 18 months. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the EU should not send a negative signal to Turkey as this could be "a serious mistake for Europe long-term." Turkish officials had expected fewer chapters to be suspended but there was some comfort that Brussels did not call for a total suspension of talks and set no new deadline for Turkey to comply on Cyprus. Egeman Bagis, a foreign policy adviser to Erdogan, said the EU should continue the talks if it wanted to promote reforms in Turkey, and not create a linkage with solving the Cyprus problem which it had not applied to Cyprus’s own accession in 2004. "Important reforms have taken place in Turkey and the EU has been a very important vehicle in ensuring these reforms. If Europe wants to encourage Turkey to continue with these reforms … then the talks should continue," Bagis told Reuters.

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