Turkey: One Step Forward, Two Back

BRUSSELS – Turkey took a step closer to the European Union Thursday after EU enlargement commissioner Guenter Verheugen said he was "satisfied" that a row over Turkey’s penal code had been resolved.

Verheugen told media representatives after a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Brussels that there were "no more obstacles" in Turkey’s path towards opening accession talks with the European Union (EU).

Erdogan was in Brussels to press EU officials to start formal membership talks with his country.

Turkey’s chances of joining the 25-member bloc were thrown into doubt last week when Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted government withdrew reform of the penal code from parliament after a row with the EU over a controversial clause to make adultery a punishable offense. The Turkish parliament failed to adopt the new penal code as a result.

The bill also proposed strengthening of freedom of expression and of women’s rights, and increased the penalties for torture and rape.

The move triggered warnings from Europe that without the adoption of the bill, which overhauls the country’s 78-year-old penal code, Turkey could not expect EU leaders to set a firm date for accession negotiations.

But Verheugen said he has been able to find "a final solution for the remaining outstanding issue," referring to the controversial penal code reform. "There are no further conditions" Turkey must fulfill in order to allow the Commission, the EU executive, to make a recommendation, he said.

"The assurances I received today . . . will allow me to make a very clear recommendation," he added.

He did not spell out what the reassurances were. All Erdogan said at the same press conference was that the Turkish parliament would reconvene Sunday to discuss the issue.

Erdogan told media representatives he would push the penal code reforms through parliament as swiftly as possible. "We are implementing all our reforms very seriously," he said. "We are very resolute on this."

The European Commission will announce Oct. 6 whether it believes Turkey has met the conditions to start accession talks. European leaders will decide at a summit Dec. 17-18 whether to fix a date for the process to begin. Turkey has been a candidate for EU membership since 1999.

Turkey’s case for joining the EU was helped earlier this month with the publication of a report "Turkey in Europe: More than a Promise?"

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

But the issue is still dividing EU officials. In many quarters Turkey is seen as too big, too poor, too distant, and too Muslim.

Turkey has a population of 70 million, about as much as that of the 10 countries that joined the EU in May. There are also concerns, particularly in Austria, Germany, France and Spain, that the entry of 66 million Muslims will change the face of the EU.

Incoming European Commission president José Manuel Durao Barroso told the French newspaper Le Monde Wednesday that Turkey has "not yet" made the grade on EU membership criteria.

"We think that Turkey has made progress, but at the present time it does not fully meet the criteria for adhesion to the EU," he said. But he added that if Turkey responds positively to accession criteria set by the EU, "I don’t see how we could say no."

The Wall Street Journal Europe quoted French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin Thursday as saying: "We are not doubting the good faith of Mr. Erdogan, but to what extent can today’s and tomorrow’s governments make Turkish society embrace Europe’s human rights values."

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are also divided on the issue. The Christian Democrats opposed to Turkish entry are pitted against more liberal MEPs.

Elmar Brok, German Christian Democrat chairman of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee says time has run out for Turkey ahead of next month’s commission report.

"It is comical if such an important reform is to be adopted so briefly before the commission report, and who guarantees that these reforms are then implemented in the far part of the country," he said.

Green MEP Joost Lagendijk, president of the parliament’s EU-Turkey committee is promoting Turkey’s case.

"In recent years we have undeniably seen a lot of progress made on many issues in Turkey, which justifies the opening of membership talks," he said in a statement Wednesday. "Both partners should now come to their senses and engage in a common effort to make the opening of accession talks possible."

Lagendijk said the EU must take into account other pressing issues on Turkey’s candidature. "The EU should not pretend that adultery is the single most important issue. There are far more important problems to solve in Turkey, such as abolishing torture and guaranteeing Kurdish and other minority rights."