BRUSSELS (AFP)–Portugal, which becomes European Union president this weekend, rejected Thursday a request by France to hold a major debate this year on EU borders and Turkey’s future membership.
Speaking to reporters in Brussels, State Secretary for European Affairs Manuel Lobo Antunes said France was within its rights to raise the issue but that Portugal thinks the EU should now focus on finalizing its "reform treaty."
"France has every right to say that we should discuss enlargement, the whole issue of borders and Turkey," he said. "But it’s also a presidency’s right to give its opinion."
"We believe that at this stage we should be concentrating on the treaty and that we should try to ensure that we come up with a solution… by December," he said. "After that of course we can start to tackle other important issues."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy believes that Turkey does not have a place in the EU and has called for wide debate on future enlargement in December, just before Portugal ends its six-month presidency starting July 1.
Portugal is organizing an intergovernmental conference, from July 23, to draw up the EU’s new "reform treaty", which was agreed after a marathon summit last week and will replace the old constitution.
The issue of Turkey’s candidature is a political hot potato which easily inflames EU emotions and usually dominates the agenda when it is brought up.
EU countries agree on the importance of encouraging reform in the mainly Muslim but secular country — with a moderate Islamic party in government — which straddles Europe, the Middle East and the volatile Caucasus region.
But there are fears that relatively poor Turkey would be difficult to integrate — politically, economically and socially — and would win voting powers similar to EU heavyweights like Britain or Italy.
Lobo Antunes affirmed that Turkey should join the EU once it has successfully completed membership talks, which are likely to run for at least a decade.
"We think it is important, it is fundamental that Turkey joins the European Union once it fulfils all the conditions and all the criteria," he said, adding that Portugal aims in the next six months to "put the process on track."
But he noted: "Enlargement is perhaps a more political issue than a geographical one and we all know that there are different views on this and it may be very difficult to find a clear and unequivocal solution."
He underlined that 2008, when Slovenia takes up the EU presidency followed by France in July, would also be a year packed with important issues like the next budget.
"I think we need to take a bit of breathing space," he said.
Turkey’s decades-long quest to join the EU has been dogged by problems.
The EU froze talks in December with Turkey on eight of the 35 policy areas, or chapters, that all aspiring members must complete because of Ankara’s on-going trade dispute with Cyprus. It decided to continue discussion on chapters not linked to trade policy.
In April, the EU and Turkey began talks on "enterprise and industry policy," only the second chapter Ankara had managed to open since "science and research" in June 2006.
Then on Tuesday, the bloc opened talks on "statistics" and "financial control" but decided not to begin negotiations on "economic and monetary policy" as planned amid stern opposition from France.