18 October 2004
PARIS, Oct 14 (AFP) - Turkey is not yet ready to join the European Union but should pursue its membership bid, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said Thursday at the start of a parliamentary debate over an issue that has polarised the country.
"Neither Europe nor Turkey" are "today ready for Turkey joining" the bloc, he told parliament in his opening remarks, but said "Turkey's request is not illegitimate."
The debate was set to highlight major arguments raging in France -- and in other EU countries -- over Turkey's four-decade-old bid to become a member of the expanding European Union.
However, in an unusual approach criticised by many MPs and underlining the deep divide over the issue, the exchange was not to be put to a vote.
The debate was being held ahead of an EU summit on December 17 at which EU leaders will decide how to act on a recommendation from the bloc's executive arm to open accession talks with Ankara.
President Jacques Chirac has pronounced himself in favour of Turkey eventually joining the EU, while bowing to public concern by promising to put the matter to a referendum and pointing out that France could veto negotiations at any time.
Many in his ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, including ministers, have declared themselves opposed to the future inclusion of a country that is predominantly Muslim and comparatively poor.
The opposition Socialist party is similarly divided, while a newspaper poll earlier this week found that 75 percent of people would vote against Turkish entry in a referendum.
"Turkey today is very far from Europe in terms of its politics, economy and society," Raffarin told parliament.
Legislative reform, minority rights, reinforcement of secular government and gender equality all needed to be advanced, he said.
He added that the Union still had to fully integrate the 10 new members, many of them from eastern Europe, which joined in May this year.
Nevertheless, France must not "seek to close (the debate) before it is open," he said, stressing that the referendum would give the country's "final word" on the matter.
The head of the UMP's junior partner, Francois Bayrou of the Union for French Democracy (UDF), stated his party's opposition, saying the effect of Turkish membership on the EU would be "a step towards its dispersion" and bring the bloc to the borders of Iraq, Iran and Syria.
A "privileged partnership" between the EU and Turkey was preferable, he said.
Turkish MPs visiting France this week expressed surprise at the resistance they had encountered to their country's bid.
"Turkey today is better prepared than several other countries recently admitted to the EU, especially in the fields of economy, banking and finances," said Ibrahim Ozal, of the ruling Justice and Development Party.
Chirac is to meet Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at three-way talks October 26 in Berlin hosted by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
Germany also has a sizeable, mainly conservative faction opposed to Turkey joining the bloc, although not on the scale as France.
France is said to be pushing for any start date for accession talks to be put back until at least the second half of next year, fearing it could hit the government's drive to get the EU's first constitution accepted by referendum.