Turkish membership of Europe dividing opinion around continent

09-07-2004

European Union leaders will decide in December whether to begin accession talks with Turkey. Officially the EU has told Turkey it can join, but without setting a date for the process to begin. In the meantime, some European governments, France and Austria among them, have begun expressing about whether Turkey should become a member.

Here's how Poland's president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, broadly endorsed Turkey's membership ambitions.

"Membership of Turkey in the European Union really means some new quality, because of geographical location, because of history, because of religion, because of many reasons. And I think it's very interesting. If you ask Poland about our position we are very much in favour. We will support this process, and it's very interesting to find, at the end of the day, real solutions. But this is a real challenge."

President Kwasniewski's position is in line with that of most central European leaders. But what's the opinion of ordinary people? These are the reactions of some people on the streets of the Czech capital, Prague.

"I think there is a problem with the European constitution, because many countries wanted to add a part about Christian history of Europe, and Turks are Muslims."

"I agree with it because Turkey is a very large country and it could be the only Muslim country in the European Union, so I think it could solve many problems

"Turkey has the potential to be a member, to be a good member. In about thirty years it could join, it could be ready."

Although fiercely secular in it's modern history, Turkey still remains Islamic in the eyes of most Europeans, and the election of a government with roots in Islamic politics has raised concerns about the separation of state and religion. But according to Igmar Carlsson, Swedish consular general in Istanbul and a supporter of Turkish membership, these impressions are wrong.

"You have now a government identifying itself as Islamic but pursuing a reform process and really being a democratic government. That could be I think a model for other countries in the region."

The debate about whether a predominantly Muslim country belongs in the EU is likely to be the most emotional one over the next five months, but according to Inans Atilgan, Turkish-born and a member of the Turkish-Austrian scientific forum, this debate is unnecessary if the EU is serious about it's own separation of religion and politics.

"I think we have to explain to the people again and again that Turkey is a secular country, that religion is part of the private sphere. Although everybody knows that religion is not a membership criterion."

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said that his country has met all conditions for beginning membership talks, and US president George Bush has urged Europe to take Turkey in. But Europe has concerns about restrictions on the Kurdish community, and the continued use of torture in prisons. The next five months should see this debate continue. But Igmar Carlsson believes Europe eventually will open up to Turkey.

"I think Turkey will get the green light for negotiations in some form. And then when these negotiations they will take at least ten years, and then Europe will be different and Turkey will be different."

09-07-2004

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