ANKARA (Reuters)–German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder pledged strong support on Monday for Turkey’s push to join the European Union and said he believed Ankara would get the green light in December to open long-delayed entry talks.
Schroeder–on his first official trip to Ankara–praised Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s political and human rights reforms and also hailed Turkey–a country of 70 million people and growing–as a key market for German investors.
"I believe Turkey is on the right path with its reform process," Schroeder told a joint news conference with Erdogan.
He said the reforms should help win Turkey a positive assessment from the European Commission in its annual progress report due in October. Turkish financial markets are watching the build-up to the decision with intense interest.
On the basis of that report–EU leaders will decide at a December summit in Brussels whether to launch accession talks.
Other big countries including Britain and France have also signaled support for Turkey–but some Scandinavian states and the Netherlands remain critical of its human rights record.
Schroeder’s upbeat message also contrasted with the more guarded commen’s of German opposition leader Angela Merkel–who on her own visit to Ankara last week called for a "special (EU) partnership" for Turkey instead of full membership.
Turkey’s EU membership is a more sensitive issue in Germany than elsewhere. It is home to 2.5 million Turkish immigran’s.
"The important thing for us is the start of negotiations. We are not expecting any firm date for membership," Erdogan said.
Negotiations–if launched–are expected to run for many years because Turkey is much larger–poorer–and more culturally different than the central and eastern European countries set to join the wealthy bloc on May 1.
"The process could take five years–seven years–maybe 10 years," Economy Minister Ali Babacan told a forum attended by Schroeder on Monday evening in Istanbul.
"We have been patient and can continue to be patient. What is important is closing the gap (with the EU)," he said.
A recent Reuters poll of financial analysts saw Turkey joining the EU in 2015.
Erdogan’s government has introduced a raft of liberal reforms including curbs on the power of the military and greater cultural rights for Turkey’s large Kurdish minority.
"Our political and economic reforms have become irreversible," Erdogan told Schroeder during a lunch reception.
He said Turkey’s Muslim heritage and geographical location at the crossroads between Europe and the Middle East would enrich and strengthen the EU–not weaken it as critics charge.
Schroeder praised Erdogan’s efforts to find a settlement on the divided east Mediterranean island of Cyprus.
"If these efforts continue–they will make a positive contribution to the EU decision (on opening talks)," he said.
Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders are now meeting almost daily to try to reunite Cyprus before it joins the EU in May.
Without a deal–only the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government will join–leaving the much poorer Turkish Cypriots out in the cold and maybe harming Ankara’s own EU bid.