ISTANBUL (Reuters)–The European Union said on Thursday it sought a firm commitment from Turkey to press ahead with political reforms on the path towards eventual membership of the bloc.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen–visiting membership candidate Turkey to develop a pre-accession strategy–said the pace of reform depended on domestic political will.
"Fundamental political change is needed," he told a meeting on EU enlargement at an Istanbul university at the start of a two-day visit for talks with Turkish officials.
"Regarding political reforms we expect a firm commitment to continue the process which was successfully launched–and to proceed on issues like the revised penal code–the new civil code–enhanced independence of the judiciary," he said.
Turkey was made a candidate for EU membership at Helsinki in December–but was not invited to join 12 other candidates in talks until it had achieved progress on democratic reforms.
The EU and Turkey are scheduled to draw up an accession strategy by October–detailing what reforms and harmonization measures Ankara should take and when.
Turkish integration with Europe has in the past been blocked by poor relations with EU member and NATO ally Greece–the Cyprus problem and due to criticisms of its human rights record.
Overwhelmingly Moslem Turkey–a rapidly developing country of some 62 million people–is expected to take years to meet stringent EU requiremen’s.
Verheugen reiterated that Ankara did not meet the political aspects of the EU’s Copenhagen Criteria–which cover democracy–human rights–the rule of law and the protection of minorities.
Relations between Turkey and the EU were most recently overshadowed by the arrest of three Kurdish mayors–prompting a formal complaint from the bloc.
The three mayors have since been freed on bail after being charged with links to armed rebels who have fought since 1984 for self-rule in the mainly Kurdish southeast of the country.
But Verheugen said the EU understood there was "great willingness" to address sensitive issues like freedom of expression and saw potential for rapid progress on reforms.
"If you start the process right now…in my view it is only a couple of years and you are discussing a completely different situation," he said.
He saw potential for development on the economic front after Turkey finalized a $4 billion–three-year accord with the International Monetary Fund designed to slash inflation.
"Turkey could make fast progress now with its clear strategy on structural reforms–backed by the IMF and World Bank," he said.
Verheugen was to fly to Ankara on Thursday afternoon for talks with Turkish officials. He was to meet Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit on Friday.