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Europe

Turkish Leader Rallies Berlin's Support for EU Negotiations

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is on a whirlwind tour of European capitals to build support for future Turkish EU membership. But even strong U.S. support is no guarantee of a concrete commitment from Brussels.

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Turkish politician Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrates his party's recent landslide election victory.

Turkey's unofficial new leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meets German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in Berlin on Tuesday night as part of a major diplomatic offensive to promote his country's accession to the European Union. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which scored a landslide victory two weeks ago, took office on Monday.

Erdogan himself is banned from holding a formal post in the government because of a conviction for Islamist sedition. Instead, the slot of prime minister has been filled by Abdullah Gul, who is considered a moderate in the party, which has links to political Islam. But behind the scenes and abroad, Erdogan appears to be calling the shots.

With a decisive summit on EU expansion due to take place in Copenhagen in less than four weeks, he is throwing the whole weight of his party’s electoral mandate behind him in an attempt to get a start date for talks on Turkish membership.

European leaders don't rule out EU membership

Schröder has said Germany wants to keep the door open for Turkey to join the EU, although he is unwilling to commit himself to any timetable. "Europe has a fundamental interest in stopping such an important country as Turkey from sliding into Islamic fundamentalism,” he told reporters last week, although he stressed that the final outcome would largely depend on the progress of human rights reforms in the country.

Other leaders are less cautious: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said after meeting Erdogan last week the EU should not delay accession talks beyond 2003.

US tries to drum up support for important ally

U.S. President George W. Bush, with an eye firmly on Ankara’s role in regional stability and as an ally in Washington’s war against terror (and, potentially, Iraq), has also signalled American support for Turkey’s candidature. On Monday, Bush called Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen´, currently the EU's rotating president, to press his case.

Afterwards, the White House announced the two men “agreed on the historic and strategic importance of advancing Turkey’s evolution toward the European Union and the importance of the Copenhagen summit in that regard.”

The case against Turkey in Europe

Many Europeans are still not convinced Turkey belongs in the EU at all. Most of the leaders of Germany’s conservative opposition share the opinion of the former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. The head of the working group drafting an EU constitution, d'Estaing recently sparked off a major international row after asserting that Turkey is not geographically or culturally European and that its accession would signify "the end of the European Union."

Roland Koch, the Christian Democratic premier of the state of Hesse, agrees.

"I believe Europe needs a constitution which is an oath to God -- that's a European tradition,” he told Deutsche Welle last week. “Of course, we can't blame the Turks for holding a different view, but it shows that there are other traditions outside Europe and we mustn't ignore that fact," he said.

Even if he does manage to extract enough commitments to support Turkey’s candidacy, Erdogan still could find it is not enough to tip the balance. The AKP’s roots in two outlawed Islamist parties and his own conviction for alleged sedition means the new government -- Turkey’s first single-party government in 15 years -- will be viewed with suspicion in many quarters.

A sticking point

The other issue is Cyprus. U.N. efforts to reunite the island are in danger of stalling because, so far at least, only the Greek Cypriot side has declared its willingness to negotiate. Erdogan recognizes that Turkey’s case with the EU would be greatly strengthened if he could bring the Turkish Cypriots to the negotiating table and withdraw the 30,000 troops Ankara has kept on the island since the 1974 invasion. But he admits that might not happen in time for the Copenhagen summit, which begins Dec. 12.

After his meeting with Schröder, Erdogan is scheduled to visit London, Dublin, Brussels and Strasbourg.

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