BRUSSELS (Reuters)–The EU’s executive Commission reaffirmed on Wednesday that it aims to bring Turkey into the 25-nation bloc–but not before 2014–adopting a draft mandate to start negotiations despite fierce internal and public debate.
"The negotiations will be based on Turkey’s own merits and the pace will depend on Turkey’s progress in meeting the requiremen’s for membership," said a draft negotiating mandate adopted on Wednesday as the basis for accession talks.
"The shared objective of the negotiations is accession."
The negotiations are scheduled to start on October 3–as agreed last December by EU leaders–provided the bloc’s 25 foreign ministers unanimously approve the mandate by then.
The document states that negotiations for Turkish European Union membership can only be concluded from 2014–after the bloc’s next long-term budget which runs from 2007 to 2013.
Growing public skepticism about Turkey’s bid–especially in western Europe–was reflected in a tough political debate inside the 25-member EU executive on the terms and timing of the "negotiating framework".
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn was more than two hours late for a news conference to announce that the Commission had adopted the mandate and told reporters: "We had a lengthy–argumentative and also very political debate.
Some Commissioners had argued the mandate should contain wording allowing for Turkey to be granted only a "privileged partnership" with the EU rather then membership–he said–although in the end no such language was included.
"STICK TO OUR WORD"
Commission sources said Luxembourg’s commissioner–Viviane Reding–had led a small group arguing against full membership and had questioned the need to adopt a mandate now.
She was backed to a lesser extent by Charlie McCreevy of Ireland–Benita Ferrero-Waldner of Austria and Jan Figel of Slovakia–the sources said.
But Rehn prevailed–noting that EU leaders had reaffirmed unanimously their commitment to accession talks at a summit just two weeks ago–after the French and Dutch referendums rejecting the EU constitution–in which hostility to Turkish membership was a factor.
"The European Union has made commitmen’s to Turkey…We stick to our word," he said. "Europe needs a stable democratic and prosperous Turkey. It is in our own strategic interests."
However–he said he fully expected an impassioned public debate about Turkey in which the issue of full membership versus "privileged partnership" would be aired for years to come.
The Commission called on EU governmen’s to launch a debate on Turkey’s relationship with Europe.
A growing number of centre-right leaders in western Europe–including the likely next German chancellor–Angela Merkel–and a top presidential contender in France–Nicolas Sarkozy–oppose Turkish entry and favor the "privileged partnership" option.
But Britain–which takes over the EU’s rotating presidency on Friday for six months and will chair the start of accession talks–is a staunch advocate of Turkish membership.
Commissioner Peter Mandelson led the pro-Turkey camp in the Commission debate–the sources said.
Rehn called the negotiating framework "rigorous," and highlighted its deman’s that Turkey develops better relations with its neighbors–notably Cyprus–divided since 1974 into Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities–and Armenia–with which it has no diplomatic relations and a sealed border.
He said Turkey had been working constructively to improve ties with Cyprus–although more needed to be done with the eventual aim of reunifying the island.
"So far we have not succeeded. I don’t take any sides on this issue–I work for a solution," he said–adding that he would emphasize Cyprus in the Commission’s next regular report on Turkey’s progress to membership–due on November 9.