After a meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, French President Jacques Chirac said Friday he supports a change to his country's constitution to allow for a referendum on Turkish EU membership.
Schröder and Chirac: Cordial, as always
Chirac, who has said he is personally in favor of Turkey's eventual EU accession, was speaking after talks with Schröder in Strassbourg that also focussed on the deteriorating security situation in Iraq and the next round of EU budget negotiations.
"I have asked my government to examine ways of inserting (into the constitution) a text stipulating that after a certain date -- before Turkey's eventual membership -- the French public be compulsorily consulted on new admissions to the EU," he said.
Chirac said that the clause -- which would be appended to the constitutional revision required by the adoption of the EU's new constitutional treaty -- would not apply to the next three member states, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, which are expected to join in 2007.
Chirac hopes the Turkish flag will eventually fly regularly next to the EU banner
He also said it was not specifically aimed at Turkey -- though the issue of Turkish membership has become a subject of fervent debate ahead of a December decision from Brussels on whether to open accession talks, and senior members of Chirac's government have themselves called for a national referendum on the issue.
EU constitution separate issue
Chirac's initiative was being seen as an attempt to separate the question of Turkish membership from the wider issue of the EU's new constitution, whose approval at a French referendum in the second half of next year is far from a foregone conclusion.
According to an opinion poll this week, some 56 percent of the French public are opposed to Turkish entry with only 36 percent in favor. The government fears the question will cloud debate in the run-up to the treaty referendum, making a no vote more likely.
Repeating his view that Turkey's eventual admission to the European Union is to be welcomed, Chirac said it would nonetheless take between 10 and 15 years for the country to carry out the reforms required by Brussels.
"We have an interest in having Turkey with us," Chirac said. "It opens the perspective of democracy and peace taking root on the whole of the European continent -- in the wider sense of the term -- so that we avoid the mistakes and violence of the past."
"Turkey has made a considerable effort recently to bring its legislation, methods and practices in line with the EU," Chirac added. "But these must advance still further before they respect the criteria on democracy and a market economy."
"A plus for European security"
Schröder said he shared the French position on Turkish entry, which he described as a "plus for European security."
Commentators said that the referendum proposal allows Chirac to defuse growing divisions within his ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party over Turkish membership.
French Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy
Though the president supports the proposal "when the time is right," his main rival for the leadership of the centre-right -- Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy (photo) -- remains sceptical, as do Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and most of the UMP rank-and-file.
Schröder and Chirac also undertook to coordinate their positions on a proposed international conference on Iraq. Both countries support the idea, but Paris says it must discuss US withdrawal from Iraq and include members of the armed opposition.