The prospects of Turkey joining the EU faded yesterday (29 May) as the French National Assembly approved a bill making referenda obligatory for accepting new EU member countries with populations over 5% of the bloc's entire size.

The proposal, which was introduced as part of a broader institutional reform project, was accepted with a 48-21 vote majority and has now been sent to the Senate for approval. The final vote will be in July, when both chambers convene for a joint session. 

The move comes just one day after MEPs and the Commission heavily criticised Turkey for slowing down the pace of reforms during the visit of the Turkish foreign minister Ali Babacan to Brussels (see EurActiv 29/05/08). 

Addressing the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee on 28 May, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said that Turkey had to revive the momentum of the reform process and should not expect membership negotiations to be concluded rapidly. 

The vote in France also comes as French President Nicolas Sarkozy tours European capitals one month before France takes over the EU Presidency, reiterating his view that Turkey was not part of Europe, neither geographically nor culturally. 

Instead of offering the country full membership, Sarkozy favours the concept of a "privileged partnership" between the EU and Turkey, supported by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

Andrew Duff, vice-chairman of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, told EurActiv that the French vote was "an unfortunate example of French xenophobia towards Turkey," with 65% of the French saying Turkey's values are too different from the European for the country to join, according to a TNS Eurobarometer dated autumn 2007. 

Asked whether this vote would rule out French approval of Turkey's future accession, Duff replied that a change in public opinion could take place if Turkey makes further progress on reforms. 

But Duff said this would also require France to transform into "a more mature parliamentary democracy" rather than "a place where populism and plebiscites rule".