European leaders advocating a "privileged partnership" for Turkey _ rather than full EU membership _ are undermining the bloc's credibility and fueling Turkish resentment, the EU official in charge of enlargement said Wednesday.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, speaking at a conference on Europe's future, addressed concerns about extending membership to the predominantly Muslim nation a day before German Chancellor Angela Merkel is scheduled to arrive to discuss Turkey's membership bid and other issues.
Before becoming chancellor last year, Merkel had advocated offering Turkey a "privileged partnership" that would fall short of full EU membership _ a move strongly opposed by Ankara, which has insisted on full membership negotiations.
However, Merkel's Social Democrat coalition partners support Ankara's bid, and Merkel's government has since said it supports the membership talks with the Turkey. The talks, which are expected to take at least a decade, began a year ago.
Some in the European Union have voiced concerns about admitting a predominantly Muslim country with a questionable record on human rights and democracy. Others questioned the EU's readiness to expand the 25-member bloc already strained from adding 10 new nations in 2004 and preparing to welcome Bulgaria and Romania.
"The regular talk on privileged partnership only erodes the EU's credibility and weakens the conditionality in Turkey," Rehn said at Bilkent University. "Thus, it reduces the political incentive for reforms and causes political backlash among ordinary Turks."
He said the European Union should be "both fair and firm" in dealing with Turkey. "We should be firm by maintaining rigorous conditionality, which is the driver of reforms and modernization in Turkey."
Rehn was visiting Turkey to mark the first anniversary of the start of the membership talks and to urge Turkey to press ahead with reforms before a key Nov. 8 EU report evaluating the country's progress on meeting conditions to join.
After meeting with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul Wednesday, Rehn again called for Turkey to expand freedom of expression and to support efforts by Finland, which holds the rotating EU presidency, to find a compromise solution that would allow Turkey to open its ports to Greek Cypriot ships and planes as part of a customs union extended to new EU nations.
Ankara's refusal to allow Greek Cypriot ships and planes to enter its ports is threatening to put membership talks on hold. Turkey says it will only open its ports to Greek Cypriots if the EU fulfills a pledge to end the isolation of Turkish Cypriots, who had voted in favor of a U.N. plan to reunify the island _ which was rejected by the Greek Cypriots.
The government is reluctant to take any steps that may be perceived as making too many concessions to Greek Cypriots and Gul said during a joint press conference with Rehn that Turkey was ready to "take positive steps when this isolation, this injustice is removed."
"Finland has started a constructive, good-intentioned effort," Gul said. "Let's hope that it shapes into something that is acceptable to both sides," he said. Details of Finland's proposals have not been made public.
Cyprus _ divided since Turkish troops invaded in 1974 after a coup attempt by supporters of union with Greece _ joined the EU in 2004, along with nine other nations.
Turkey has no diplomatic relations with the island's internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government, and backs the breakaway Turkish Cypriot republic in the north of the island.
Rehn said Turkey must change Article 301 of its penal code _ which sets out punishment for insulting the Turkish Republic, its officials or "Turkishness" and has been used to press charges against dozens of authors, journalists, publishers and scholars, including the internationally known novelists Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak.