On his first visit to Turkey as Commission President, José Manuel Barroso said he was confident that two more chapters in the accession talks with the country could be opened by July, while stressing that Turkey still has "a long way to go" before fulfilling EU membership conditions.
"Turkey has made consistent progress over time [on meeting EU standards]," President Barroso said after his meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan yesterday (10 April). But he stressed that more and faster reforms were needed.
"Turkey should demonstrate to Europe its interest in EU membership" and "show Europe what Europe has to gain from Turkish membership," Barroso said on Thursday on the eve of his departure to Ankara.
Addressing the Turkish Parliament, Barroso said that reform "will be the best guarantee of progress in negotiations and above all they are in the interest - I believe - of the citizens of Turkey".
Barroso welcomed the government's recent move to send a bill to Parliament requesting the softening of the controversial Article 301 of the penal code, which outlaws criticism of Turkish identity (EurActiv 08/04/08). He called it "a step in the right direction." Reform of Article 301 is a key EU demand in the Turkish pre-accession talks.
The Commission chief said that the law was incompatible with "the values of freedom of expression that we have in Europe," suggesting that its reversal would have "a major impact on the way Turkey is seen by Europe". The Turkish Parliament is expected to approve the bill next week.
Barroso also reiterated EU concerns about the recent decision of the highest Turkish Court to hear a case on banning the ruling AKP party and its leading figures, including Erdogan and President Abdullah Gül (EurActiv 01/04/08). He said that it is "something not normal in a stable democratic country that the party that was chosen by the majority of the Turkish people is now under this kind of investigation".
"We are looking for a secular, democratic Turkey. You cannot impose religion by force, you cannot impose secularism by force," Barroso pointed out, adding that "since Turkey is an EU candidate country, we cannot be indifferent to this type of development".
"What I can tell you is frankly that I hope the decision of the Constitutional Court will be a decision compatible with the rule of law, European standards, with jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights," he said.
During his two-day visit, which is seen as a fact-finding trip to assess the state of EU-Turkey relations, Barroso will also meet opposition leaders, businesspeople and civil society organisations as well as senior government officials.
In a joint press conference with Barroso, Erdogan reiterated that Turkey would only accept the goal of full EU membership and "not any other alternative".
"We believe the European Commission will continue to support our country's membership bid, as it has done so far," Erdogan said, stressing that the Turks largely support this "strategic project".