WASHINGTON–DC (Reuters)–US President George W. Bush on Monday stepped up a diplomatic offensive in support of Turkey’s bid to join the European Union–hoping to gain favor from a critical ally in any US-led war with Iraq.
Bush highlighted the importance of Ankara’s bid in a telephone call with the current EU president–Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen–the White House said.
The Bush administration is also assembling a military and economic aid package to help Turkey weather major economic disruptions if war with Baghdad breaks out–according to administration and congressional sources.
"We welcome the new government’s placing EU accession and reform–the economy and a Cyprus settlement at the top of its priorities. The United States will work with the government on all of these issues and we believe that this is a historic opportunity for Turkey to achieve its aspirations," a State Department official said after Turkey’s Justice and Development Party formally took office on Monday.
Turkey wants a date to start EU membership talks at a summit in Copenhagen–Denmark on Dec. 12-13. A crucial factor is the standoff on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus–which has been split between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots for nearly 30 years.
The United Nations seeks to reunite the island and wants a preliminary agreement before the summit.
During their call–Bush and Rasmussen "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," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
But EU leaders face a sensitive choice of whether to give Ankara–recognized as a candidate for EU membership since 1999–a date for opening accession negotiations.
Some in the EU still say Turkey should not join the Union.
Former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing–head of a convention drafting an EU constitution–declared bluntly this month that Turkey was not geographically or culturally European and its accession would mean "the end of the European Union." Counting On Turkey
The United States is counting on Turkey’s help if it takes military action to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein–whom Washington accuses of seeking weapons of mass destruction.
Turkey already allows US and British warplanes to use one of its air bases to patrol a "no-fly zone" over northern Iraq.
Turkey is already pressing Washington for compensation in the form of military aid and debt relief.
According to congressional sources–Bush is considering an initial $700 million-$800 million package–which–in addition to economic assistance–could clear the way for Turkey to purchase eight S-70B Seahawks and six UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. Over the next five years–bilateral aid could amount to several billion dollars.
"We expect to suffer a great deal of damage in the event of a new (Iraq) operation. I told them these economic losses should be met with some kind of recompense," the head of Turkey’s powerful military–Gen. Hilmi Ozkok–said after meeting in Washington.
Tourism and trade in mainly Muslim Turkey could be badly hit if hostilities break out–strangling economic recovery and putting more strain on the country’s massive debt burden–which a $16 billion International Monetary Fund pact is supposed to reduce.