Public debate on Turkey to come

01.07.2004 - 09:01 CET | By Honor Mahony

EUOBSERVER / THE HAGUE - The Dutch EU Presidency has pledged to be fair
on the question of whether Ankara is ready to start EU membership
negotiations amid concerns that the EU may not be ready for Turkey.
"The Netherlands feels a responsibility to make sure that our decision
is well-reasoned and rock-solid", said Dutch prime minister Jan Peter
Balkenende on the eve of the Dutch EU Presidency.
While the European Commission will decide in the autumn whether Ankara
has met the political criteria for joining the 25-nation block, Mr
Balkenende says this is just one of two types of debate that will take
place.
The Dutch leader said that discussion on the political criteria is
"technical".
The second discussion amongst the European public is likely to centre
around whether "an Islamic country belongs to Europe".
However, the Dutch are insisting that this debate, as well as whether
the EU is actually ready for a country the size of Turkey, should not be
additional criteria.
"We need fair play ... the rules of the game are clear", said Mr
Balkenende referring to the fact that if the European Commission decides
that Ankara is ready, it will then be up to leaders in December to
actually decide, on the basis of the report, to open negotiations
without delay.
Late debate
With French leadership ambivalent on Turkish EU membership, the
opposition Christian Democrats in Germany actively opposing it and the
Austrians also making negative sounds, the Dutch do feel that a debate
will come - it is just later than it should have been.
Referring to 1999, when EU leaders actually decided to give Turkey
candidate status, Dutch Europe minister Atzo Nicolaļ said, "that was the
time for debate".
He added, "I think the leaders knew what they decided but the public
didn't know".
However, it is too late for the "principle debate" of whether Turkey
should join the EU, he concluded.
"We have to realise Turkey has to be ready and the European Union has to
be ready".
Mr Nicolaļ also conceded that there is a risk that the planned Dutch
referendum on the Constitution, which is set to happen in the same
timeframe as a decision on Turkey, may be linked to the issue.
"That is always a risk", he said.