Turkey, facing the most critical phase of its EU accession negotiations, has been told that two new policy chapters will be opened in June. However, EU officials warn that there is still a long road ahead for Ankara.
Turkey is facing domestic trials at a time when the EU is looking for progress on reforms
Austrian Foreign Minister Ursala Plassnik pledged on Monday, April 21, to keep European Union membership negotiations with Turkey open, but stressed that Austria's position was that the result of the talks would not necessarily mean that Turkey will join the union.
Speaking at a joint press conference in Ankara with her Turkish counterpart Ali Babacan, Plassnik said it was important that accession talks continue and that the door is not shut on Turkey but that the talks would not necessarily lead to full membership.
"Our goal is to have Turkey as a stable modern dynamic, successful partner, as close a partner of the European Union as is imaginable," Plassnik said. "We are aware that for the Turkish side, the one and only exclusive goal is membership in the European Union. I have been trying to enlarge the scope of imagination on that specific point ... I could imagine a tailor-made Turkey-European Union community."
Babacan repeated that Turkey's aim was full membership and refused to be drawn on alternatives. He stressed that any decision on Turkish membership would occur in the future and that continued people-to- people ties would result in public opinion in Europe supporting Turkish membership.
"The membership decision will not be made on yesterday's Turkey or today's Turkey, but on the Turkey of the future," Babacan said.
Turkey facing domestic tests as EU watches closely
Turkey's Constitutional Court is hearing the closure case
On the issue of the potential closure by the Turkish Constitutional Court of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for allegedly becoming a focus of anti-secular activities, a topic that has led to criticism from the European Union of the Turkish legal system, Plassnik said the EU should not act as an international police officer. It was up to Turkey to debate the role of secularism in society.
Babacan refused to speculate on what might happen if his party is closed, saying that he believed Turkey would find a solution.
"This year our country will go through other tests but I believe our country will pass these tests," he said.
The two foreign ministers said they had agreed to enhance cooperation against terrorism with Plassnik making it clear that Austria considered the separatist Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) a terrorist organization.
Austria's Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik
"We are fighting against terrorism with the same determination as others," Plassnik said in response to a question that Austria had last year allowed a senior PKK member to flee to Iraq. "I regret that in the Turkish media there was a wrong impression concerning Austria's determination to fight terrorism, including the PKK."
Turkish media condemned Austria's actions last year when it allegedly allowed Riza Altun, a senior PKK representative in Europe, to escape to Iraq despite the fact he was wanted by Turkish authorities. The actions of the Austrian government in allowing Altun to go free were also condemned by the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
Rehn warns of AKP closure case impact
Plassnik's visit coincided with the publication of an interview given by the EU's Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn in which he announced that the EU was planning to open two new chapters in Turkey's accession negotiations in June.
However, he added that Ankara was facing a more critical phase than at any time since its negotiations to join the European Union began three years ago.
Rehn hopes Turkey will emerge stronger from its trials
Rehn said in an interview with the German daily Die Welt that the closure case against the AKP was adding extra pressure on Ankara at a time when its progress on necessary reforms was also faltering.
Rehn predicted Turkey could emerge with its democratic institutions strengthened once the closure case was resolved, provided that all sides showed willingness to compromise and the necessary reforms were pushed through.
Delays on both sides hinders Turkey's progress
Rehn said he also expected Turkey to become a member of EU within 10 to 15 years should it continue reforms decisively, according to a separate report from Turkey's Anatolian news agency.
"We expect freedom of expression for all," Rehn said. "We expect that the rights of women and minorities are protected."
The EU has been particularly critical of strict laws governing the offence of "insulting Turkishness," under which writers have been prosecuted in the past.
Journalists like Ocak Isik Yurtcu have been jailed in Turkey
In addition to Turkey sticking to its reform course, the enlargement commissioner added that the EU should also play its part by standing by its commitments on Turkish accession.
Regarding slow progress on the accession process, which began in 2005, Rehn said six of 35 policy chapters in the process had been opened and a further two -- business law and intellectual property -- would be opened in June.
The EU suspended negotiations in eight chapters because of Turkey's refusal to open its ports to Greek Cypriot vessels.
Further chapters, including energy, would be opened under the French EU presidency in the second half of the year, Rehn said.
Turkey angered by talk of privileged partnership
The French EU presidency may prove to be another critical phase for Turkey's hopes.
Merkel and Sarkozy both advocate privileged partnership
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has suggested Turkey should accept a privileged partnership with the EU and not full EU membership.
This stance has angered Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan who has said that his country would settle for nothing less than full membership of the European Union.
"Turkey cannot accept any alternative which is going to rule out full membership of the EU," Erdogan said earlier this month. "An enlargement that is going to embrace Turkey is not going to undermine the EU, is not going to weaken the EU."
At the NATO summit in Bucharest this month, Sarkozy attempted conciliation by telling Turkish President Abdullah Gul that France did not oppose the opening of negotiations chapters with Turkey and that there would be special attention paid to the negotiations during the French EU presidency to strengthen Turkey's integration into the EU.