The EU’s chief executive said Turkey must continue implementing political and legal reforms if it hopes to be admitted into the European bloc, said Romano Prodi.
Turkey and the EU -- soon to be under one flag?
As the first EU Commission President to visit Turkey in 40 years, Prodi was set up for a historic showing even before he arrived.
But once the head of the EU's executive wing began to speak about Ankara’s chances for gaining admittance in the soon-to-be 25-member bloc, he sounded repetitive.
"My main message is to continue along the path of reforms because impressive progress has been achieved. The country is now closer to the Union," Prodi told a news conference after talks with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In the past two years, Turkey has carried out sweeping reforms as it tries to meet Brussels standards for accession. It abolished the death penalty and granted greater cultural rights to Kurds, even though they are not recognized as an official minority. Ankara also claims it has cleaned up its poor human rights record, especially the notorious treatment of its political dissidents, although international human rights watchdogs frequently question the claim.
Eyes set on Brussels
Turkey has been eyeing entry in the EU for some time and has turned up its lobbying a notch since the Union approved membership for 10 Eastern European and Mediterranean countries. It now hopes EU leaders will agree to open the long-awaited membership talks when they meet to discuss expansion in December 2004.
A definite agreement would have been a welcome gesture and have given Prodi’s visit the historic dimension many Turks hoped to see. But the Commission chief declined to set a specific date for commencing the talks.
Turkey has been an EU candidate since 1999, but it is the only country among 13 not to have begun accession talks with Brussels. Ankara argues that it has fulfilled all the political criteria and has earned the right to open the membership talks by the end of the year.
In October, the Commission must prepare a report for EU leaders on whether Turkey meets the standards of democracy and market economy laid down for potential candidates. At that time, Prodi said the Commission would at that time take a "look at the question of implementation of legislation on the ground."
Back in November the Commission noted "significant progress" had been made, but cited several areas where more still needs to be done, including strengthening the independence of the judiciary and carrying out human rights reforms.
Turkish Cypriots wave EU flags during a demonstration in the Turkish part of Nicosia, Cyprus, Jan. 14. Thousands of Turkish Cypriots, rallied in northern Cyprus to call for the reunification of the divided island.
Cyprus integral to EU membership
Although technically not a condition for starting membership talks, the Commission has made it clear that finding a solution to Cyprus is integral to aiding Turkey’s bid for the EU.
The Greek, southern part of the divided island will join the Union in May 2004. The northern part of Cyprus, recognized as an independent republic only by Turkey itself, has not been approved. Brussels says the Turkish Cypriots living in the north will be denied entry in the Union if a settlement is not struck in time.
A solution to Cyprus "is not a precondition," Prodi said, "but this will be a big help."
Up to now Turkey has rejected any link between the Cyprus question and its own EU membership, but Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul admitted in a newspaper interview on Thursday that failure to resolve the dispute could prove costly.
"We are running late for a solution. Our hand is weakening. We cannot get rid of a problem by postponing it. This is where we are at in Cyprus," he said in comments published by the liberal Radikal daily.
On Thursday Erdogan told Prodi Turkey would work for a solution to Cyprus by May.