BRUSSELS (Reuters)–The European Commission on Thursday defended its refusal to set EU candidate Turkey a date for opening membership talks and chided the United States for trying to intervene on behalf of its NATO ally.
In its annual enlargement report published on Wednesday–the EU executive said 10 candidates–including the divided island of Cyprus–could join the bloc in 2004–but it told Turkey it had to make more reforms before it could start accession talks.
The US State Department–mindful of Turkey’s geopolitical importance as a war with Iraq looms–urged the European Union to reach out more to Ankara. Separately–the US special envoy on Cyprus–Tom Weston–said the EU should be fair to Turkey.
"I do not agree with this kind of intervention and I believe this was unfortunate. We will take our position by ourselves. We know what the United States thinks (on Turkey)," Eneko Landaburu–the Commission’s director-general for enlargement–told Reuters in an interview.
"We respect them and are keen to listen to them but they should not make some public declaration in the press," he added.
The Commission is sensitive to US claims that it does not take fully into account Turkey’s geopolitical role as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East and its status as one of the very few secular democracies in the Muslim world.
EU diplomats–many of them uncomfortable with the idea of trying to absorb such a large–impoverished country of nearly 70 million–insist that Turkey must meet the same economic and political criteria for membership as any other candidate.
NOT CHRISTIAN CLUB
In its report–the Commission praised recent reforms in Turkey–including its abolition of the death penalty in peacetime–but said it was not yet ready to open negotiations.
It listed as obstacles Turkey’s continuing restrictions on religious and media freedom–poor jail conditions and the lack of full civilian control of the country’s powerful armed forces.
"Despite all the progress made…not all the elemen’s are fulfilled (for opening talks)," said Landaburu–a Spaniard.
But he added that Turkey–in his view–should be allowed to join the EU once it fulfilled all the conditions of membership–despite reservations among–for example–some German Christian Democrats that a Muslim country does not belong inside the EU.
"I personally strongly believe the EU is not a club of Christian peoples…If a country shares (the EU’s democratic) values…and is European–there should be no obstacle to it joining the family," Landaburu said.
Landaburu said the main threat for enlargement now was an Irish referendum set for October 19 on the Nice Treaty–which adapts EU institutions to a bigger Union. The Commission says a ‘No’ vote would delay–or even scupper–the expansion plans.
"(In the event of a ‘No’ vote) we will have eurosceptics saying ‘enough is enough–we are going too fast with enlargement’. And on the other side–the federalists will say it is time to deepen the existing Union before widening it. They will say we need to put our house in order first," he said.
"Both these viewpoints will point in the same direction–which is to block or delay enlargement," he said.