The European Union's head office recommended the start of EU membership talks for Turkey on Wednesday but set stiff conditions to prevent it from backtracking on sweeping democratic and human rights reforms.
According to one EU official, the decision was reached by a "large consensus" among commissioners, but no vote was taken. There was also no recommended date to start negotiations.
"In principle, yes, but it also said that some conditions have to be fulfilled," EU Commissioner Franz Fischler said, as reported by AsiaNews. "There is no more ground to be opposed fundamentally to the start of entry talks. It is also clear that there is still a lot to do."
While the recommendation boosted Turkey’s long-standing aspirations to join the European club, the commission warned it would suspend or even halt EU membership negotiations over any serious and persistent failure to respect democracy and human rights.
In a report released earlier this year by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), the organization said that public demands for change, a strengthening civil society, and EU candidacy requirements were working together to force positive change in Turkey despite continuing determined resistance within the civil service, judiciary, and security forces.
“The past year has brought substantial legislative reform, but established patterns of violations are proving hard to eradicate,” HRW reported. “Police still routinely ill-treat detainees, and reports of outright torture in police custody persist. Prosecutors continue to indict writers and politicians who express a religious or ethnic perspective on politics, charging them with racial or religious hatred, as well as ‘insulting state institutions.’”
HRW warns that even though there have undeniably been “constant improvements” the “present situation concerning press freedom, religious freedom and respect of minority rights is far from perfect”. HRW is particularly worried that some people are still in prison for their opinions and that torture is still used in many penitentiaries.
The Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) similarly reported that despite the government reforms to facilitate joining the European Union, “the few who dare to profess Christ, face harassment, threats and prison.”
“Evangelism is difficult because Turks tend to think of Christians in the same category as Armenian terrorists and Jehovah's Witnesses,” the persecution watchdog reported. “While proselytism is not specifically forbidden, many prosecutors and police view it was suspicion, arresting them for disturbing the peace, ‘insulting Islam,’ conducting unauthorized educational courses, etc.”
Meanwhile, sources say Christians are still precluded from military careers and the higher levels of public office because they are held to be a “suspect” social group for the country’s security. Christians cannot attend religious schools, since seminaries, novitiates and schools for vocational formation have been abolished. If a young man, for example, feels called to the priesthood or to consecrated life, he must go abroad. Furthermore, new churches cannot be built to meet the religious needs of the Christian communities.
Of the 67 million inhabitants of Turkey 99.6 percent are Muslims and 0.3 percent Christians. Although some have suggested that there would be a risk of a clash of religions if the predominantly Muslim nation were admitted to the European Union, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed the suggestions, saying that while Turkey is different in terms of religion, Europe is not a “Christian club” and could integrate well different faiths and cultures.
“What the EU is trying to do ... is to harmonize and to bring together and integrate different cultures and religions," Erdogan stated last month.
Sources say if the 25 EU leaders approve the European Commission’s recommendation at the upcoming December summit, entry talks for Turkey could begin in early 2005.