Mon, Oct 04, 2004 - Page 6 News List

European divisions over Turkey bubble to surface


As the European Commission prepares to publish a crunch report on Turkey's EU hopes, political leaders' and public opinions seem strikingly divided over the prospect of admitting the vast Muslim country.

While the majority of EU governments are broadly in favour of Ankara's accession, criticism notably comes from opposition parties and public opinion in key European countries.

And the stakes of the public-political split have been raised by French President Jacques Chirac's backing for a constitutional change to allow the French people to vote on the matter.

The main arguments against Ankara's bid center on its sheer size, which will in theory give Turkey as much power as heavyweights like Germany and France, as well as the cost, which Brussels says could be up to 27.5 billion euros (US$34 billion).

Others fear mass immigration from Turkey, while culturally many question whether a country whose population is 95 percent Muslim can realistically be integrated with a bloc whose heritage is broadly Christian.

Those backing Turkey argue it is an essential bridgehead between the West and the Muslim world, helping spread stability in a volatile region, while underlining the economic opportunities offered.

Of those in favor, Britain is the most supportive, with Prime Minister Tony Blair saying Ankara's EU entry would be "important for Turkey, important for Europe, and important for Britain too."

Italy's Silvio Berlusconi is also a key backer, although a key member of his ruling coalition is strongly against. The Spanish government's favourable view of talks with Turkey is shared by the opposition Popular Party.

French President Chirac has voiced support once Turkey meets "all the necessary conditions," but on Friday called for a study into constitutional changes so that the entry of all new EU states must be subject to a referendum.

A French poll last week indicated that 56 percent of French people oppose Turkish EU entry, with only 36 percent in favor.

Other polls have showed similiar trends: in Denmark 49 percent are against, compared to 31 percent in favor, while in Lithuania fewer than one in three people back Turkey's EU hopes.

Chirac seems determined to press ahead.

"We have an interest in having Turkey with us," he said after talks with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Paris.

"It opens the perspective of democracy and peace taking root on the whole of the European continent -- in the wider sense of the term -- so that we avoid the mistakes and violence of the past," he said.

Schroeder said he shared the French position on Turkish entry.

Of all EU member states, Austria is the most opposed, with Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel urging that the EU "digest" its latest wave of enlargement in May this year before engaging in a further round of enlargement.

Opposition also comes from inside the Commission itself, which is to publish its recommendations Wednesday on whether Turkey should be allowed to start entry negotiations with the EU.

Two commissioners -- Dutch interior market chief Frits Bolkestein and Austria's Franz Fischler, who holds the farm brief -- have in recent weeks voice their doubts.

Bolkestein notably cited an American Islamic expert as forecasting that by the end of the 21st century Europe will be mostly Islamic, due to migration flows and democraphic trends.

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