Turkey Takes a Step Closer to EU

BRUSSELS – Turkey’s case for joining the EU improved with the publication of a report Monday setting out the advantages this would bring to the bloc.

The report was published as European Union enlargement commissioner Guenther Verheugen noted in Ankara that the human rights situation within Turkey has improved. Concerns over human rights have long been an obstacle to Turkey’s accession to the EU.

The European Commission, the EU executive, will announce Oct. 6 whether it believes Turkey has met the conditions needed to start accession talks. European leaders will consider Turkey’s application at a summit Dec. 17-18 and decide whether to fix a date for the process to begin.

The report "Turkey in Europe: More than a Promise?" recommended Monday that the bloc starts accession talks with Turkey as soon as it meets the Copenhagen criteria – a set of conditions candidate countries must meet before they can be considered for entry into the EU.

These measures include stable institutions, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities, and a functioning market economy.

The report was published by the Independent Commission on Turkey, comprising former heads of state, foreign ministers and European commissioners. The committee was set up in March this year to inform the debate on Turkey’s membership.

"Turkey has every reason for expecting to be welcome in the Union, provided it fulfills the relevant conditions," the report says. "The Independent Commission therefore feels strongly that in dealing with this issue the European Union must treat Turkey with all due respect, fairness and consideration."

Launching the report in Brussels Monday, former president of Finland and chair of the commission Martti Ahtisaari said a decision should be made soon.

"Further delay would damage the European Union’s credibility," he said. "Turkey has undergone a silent revolution in recent years in trying to meet the political criteria necessary for membership of the EU."

Ahtisaari said fears about Turkish immigration to Europe were "vastly exaggerated." The report anticipates that in the event of membership around 2.7 million migrants could travel from Turkey to the rest of EU in the long term, amounting to 0.5 percent of the bloc’s population. Some 3.8 million Turkish migrants already live in the EU.

The report acknowledges there would be problems in integrating such a large member state into EU decision-making procedures, but says these are not insurmountable.

Turkey has a population of 70 million, which is about as much as that of the 10 countries that joined the EU in May. There are also concerns that the entry of 66 million Muslims will change the face of the EU.

The new report says Turkey’s heritage could promote EU interests in the Middle East and the Balkans, and improve ties with the Islamic world.

"In spite of its size and special characteristics, and although it would unquestionably increase the Union’s heterogeneity as a member, Turkey would be unlikely to fundamentally change the EU and the functioning of its institutions," the report says. "Turkey’s entry may accentuate existing divergences on the future of the integration process, but it would not cause a qualitative shift in the debate."

Speaking in Ankara Monday, Verheugen said "the moment of truth" had come for Turkey.

"We’ve agreed that there’s now certainly sufficient critical mass on the table to allow us to make a final judgment," he said after a meeting with Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul. "It’ll be a clear and firm decision."

Verheugen said it was his understanding that torture was no longer being used systematically by the police. "We won’t hide the fact that there are difficulties in certain areas," he said. "Implementation is not complete, but that’s normal."

Dutch foreign minister Bernard Bot whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU said last week that Turkey is likely to start EU entry talks next year on the strength of a "positive" assessment of its progress on human rights.