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Europe

Germany Supports Turkey's EU Membership Bid

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, on his first official visit to Ankara, has promised strong support for Turkey's push to join the EU. A decision on Turkey's candidacy is expected before the end of the year.

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Gerhard Schröder enjoys a warm welcome from Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan.

Chancellor Schröder has given Turkey's EU enthusiasts reason to hope. A statement of support from the largest nation in the EU bloc is crucial if Turkey is to get the go-ahead to begin negotiations for EU membership.

"I believe Turkey is on the right path with its reform process," Schröder said at a joint news conference with Turkey's Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan. He said that Erdogan's political and human rights reforms should help Turkey get a positive assessment from the European Commission when it publishes an annual progress report in October.

EU officials will decide in December if they'll give Turkey the green light to become a candidate for EU entry.

Overcoming rejection

In October 2002, the EU rejected Turkey's requests to set a date for the beginning of entry talks, mainly over concerns about Turkey's human rights record. There were also reports that some senior EU officials had raised doubts that Turkey could ever join the bloc.

Due its geographical position straddling the boundary between Europe and Asia, Turkey has historically been a melting pot of both cultures. But the debate at the EU level belies a general unease at the idea of admitting a large Muslim nation into the fold.

Germany, though, has tended not to see Turkey's Muslim culture as a hindrance to EU membership. Instead, the government says Turkey's inclusion would be a unique chance to create more dialogue with the Islamic world.

Despite the snub it received in 2002, Turkey has not relented in its drive to join the EU. Erdogan has declared EU membership to be his government's most important goal. The Turkish parliament has adopted several reform packages aimed at allievating the EU's concerns, and bringing Turkey's laws on issues such as minority rights and human rights up to EU standards.

Schröder said that the reform process -- which has seen the death penalty abolished and greater rights granted to the country's Kurdish minority -- has taken Turkey "a large step" closer to Europe, but he added that a resolution of the Cyprus question before the first round of EU expansion on May 1 would be "an additional positive signal."

Greek and Turkish Cypriots have begun negotiations which could lead to reunification of the divided Mediterranean island following referendums in both communities. Turkish Cypriots are reported to be in favor of reunification, though there are reports now of increased opposition to the plan by Greek Cypriots.

Buoyed by Schröder's visit -- the first trip to Ankara by a German chancellor in 11 years -- Erdogan stressed that Turkey would do its utmost to keep the reform process moving. In his opinion, the country has tackled the biggest issues standing in its path toward EU acceptance, though he said two or three important laws still needed to be implemented. These include the start of of radio and television broadcasts in Kurdish.

Opposition less welcoming

Schröder's show of support for Turkey during his visit contrasted greatly with the more reserved comments made by German opposition leader Angela Merkel during her visit to Ankara last week. She proposed a "privileged partnership" for Turkey instead of EU membership. Merkel argued that the EU, which takes on 10 new member countries in May, will not be able to successfully integrate Turkey with its population of 70 million and an economic power that amounts to only 23 percent of the EU average.

Erdogan dismissed the idea of a special partnership, saying that it had never been mentioned before and that he didn't plan on considering it.

Turkey has had an association treaty with the EU since 1963, under which EU membership has always been held out as a possibility.

"The expectations raised by this cannot and may not be disappointed," Schröder said. "One needs to deal fairly with Turkey and fair means that you stand by your word."

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