Turkey back on track for EU membership

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The Independent Online

Turkey's long battle for EU membership was back on track yesterday, after Ankara pledged to press ahead with key reforms and backed down over plans to criminalise adultery.

The breakthrough came after pledges from the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that the parliament would approve the reforms on Sunday - without controversial moves to make adultery an offence.

Yesterday's public reconciliation marked a considerable turnaround after a fortnight during which Brussels and Ankara rowed in public.

Using unusually explicit language, the European commissioner for enlargement, Günther Verheugen, said that Mr Erdogan's assurances during talks in Brussels meant there were "no more obstacles on the table", and he would "make a very clear recommendation" in a crucial report due on 6 October.

If the Turkish parliament votes in favour of reform of the penal code on Sunday, the Commission is almost certain to recommend the start of negotiations on EU membership. That would be an important landmark in Turkey's 41-year battle to take part in European integration.

Mr Verheugen's document will be used by EU leaders, who have the final say on whether to start EU membership negotiations with Ankara. Providing Mr Erdogan can deliver on his promise, he should also win approval for the start of talks from EU leaders in December.

With a mainly Muslim population of 70 million, and acute poverty in regions near the borders with Iraq, Turkey will not be easy for the EU to absorb. But the governments of all the big EU member states favour the start of talks on Turkish accession, even if public opinion in several of them is hostile.

The new mood of optimism followed several days of brinkmanship over the legal reforms, which include tougher penalties for rapists, paedophiles and torturers. These are seen as a vital part of Turkey's efforts to match the EU's "Copenhagen criteria" on human rights.

Ankara had shelved the measures following a move from Mr Erdogan's Islamic-rooted party to insert into the new penal code a law criminalising adultery. The row had raised tensions ahead of the Commission's report and six EU foreign ministers warned Turkey that criminalising adultery would damage its bid for membership talks. The European Commission upped the ante by saying that the penal code was an implicit part of Turkey's reform efforts. Mr Erdogan responded by telling Brussels not to meddle in internal Turkish politics.

Yesterday Mr Erdogan, who initially backed the adultery measure, gave clear assurances that his Justice and Development Party would support the new penal code. He said: "No item which is not already included in the draft of the Turkish criminal code will be included and, I mean by that, the issue of adultery."

Despite the strong political support for a start for talks with Turkey, public opinion in France, Germany and Austria is wary. The recent row has galvanised politicians who are sceptical about the country joining the EU, and some critics believe that the dispute over adultery was manufactured in Ankara to divert attention from other human rights issues.

Yesterday the French Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, told The Wall Street Journal: "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?"

But Turkey's negotiations with the EU are likely to take up to a decade to complete, and Mr Erdogan said this would give Turks time to achieve a "change in their way of thinking".

He added: "This will not be as easy as adopting a piece of legislation but during the course of negotiations it will be settled."