Stalemate over penal code threatens Turkey's EU bid

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The Independent Online

Turkey's hopes of joining the European Union were thrown into crisis yesterday after an attempt to introduce a new penal code tackling torture, rape and "honour" killings was shelved amid political faction fighting.

Turkey's hopes of joining the European Union were thrown into crisis yesterday after an attempt to introduce a new penal code tackling torture, rape and "honour" killings was shelved amid political faction fighting.

The row erupted in the Turkish parliament following unsuccessful moves by hardliners within the ruling Islamist party to pass a law against adultery.

The European Commission, which is due to publish a report on Turkey's human rights progress in two weeks' time, made it clear that the new penal code was essential to Ankara's application to join the EU.

Jean-Christophe Filori, spokesman for the European commissioner for enlargement, Günther Verheugen, said: "The Commission will make clear that, as long as such a central element as the reform of the penal code is not adopted, accession negotiations cannot start." The declaration set the scene for a week of political drama, as the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan prepares to visit Brussels on Thursday. Last week he told the EU to stop meddling in internal Turkish politics.

The stakes are high because EU leaders will decide in December whether the government in Ankara has made enough progress on human rights to begin membership talks.

Until recently it had been assumed that the Commission's report, on which the decision will be based, would provide a positive recommendation.

Yesterday's declaration throws that into doubt. Without the penal code in place, the best Ankara could hope for, when the Commission reports on 6 October, would be for a go-ahead conditional on the law being put on to the statute book. That would delay the start of negotiations, which are expected to take up to 10 years to complete.

The latest ructions were sparked by efforts from within Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party to make adultery punishable by up to two years in prison.

Under acute pressure from the EU, the government agreed with the opposition to shelve the measure. However, hardliners in Mr Erdogan's party sought to get it on to the statute book through an amendment to the penal code.

When that provoked a furore, Mr Erdogan - pulled one way by the EU and another by his party supporters - shelved the whole penal code.

On Saturday, Mr Verheugen summoned the Turkish ambassador to the EU to ask for clarification on Ankara's intentions over the penal code, but Mr Filori said that this had yet to be provided.

Over the weekend, Mr Verheughen told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper: "Now we're at the moment of truth, Turkey must show the strength to reconcile traditional Turkish values with European values."

Behind the scenes, the opponents of Turkish accession to the EU have begun to mobilise, both in national capitals and within the European Commission. In Vienna yesterday, the far-right Freedom Party threatened a political crisis in Austria, saying that it would walk out of the coalition government if the Chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, agreed to Turkish membership. Critics of the Freedom Party point out that it failed to carry out similar pledges about the EU's last enlargement.

The German opposition leader, Angela Merkel, has lobbied fellow conservatives in Europe to offer Ankara a partnership, rather than allowing it to join the EU. Within the European Commission, Austria's Franz Fischler, and Frits Bolkestein, of the Netherlands, have made clear their reservations about Turkey's EU bid. Turkey would be the first mainly Islamic country to join the EU and, because of the size of its population, with about 69 million people, it would have a huge say in decision-making.

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