Turkish reform seen tied to progress in EU talks

Turkey will reform a law the European Union says unfairly restricts freedom of speech when the EU allows its stalled membership talks to resume, Turkish officials said on Friday.

Turkey has been under heavy EU pressure to amend or scrap article 301 of the penal code which makes it a crime to insult "Turkishness", but Ankara is frustrated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy's efforts to block the negotiation process.

Sarkozy opposes allowing Turkey, a large, relatively poor, Muslim country, to join the 27-nation bloc. German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week also reiterated her opposition to Turkey's membership.

"There is full political will to change article 301, that has been decided on, but the details and timing depend on the EU taking certain steps," said a senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"It will be difficult to press the button on new reforms (if no new chapters are opened)."

French diplomats have been fighting backroom skirmishes in Brussels to keep any reference to "accession" or "membership" in connection with Turkey out of an EU foreign ministers' statement next Monday on enlargement policy, EU sources said.

EU ambassadors met for several hours on Friday to try to resolve that drafting dispute but failed to reach agreement, meaning ministers will have to take up the issue on Monday.

Turkey hopes to open talks on at least two more chapters, or policy areas, under Portugal's EU presidency, which ends on December 31.

A meeting to launch negotiations on health and consumer affairs policy and trans-European networks is set for December 18, diplomats said, provided EU leaders agree next week on creating a "reflection group" to study the bloc's long-term future.

The ambassadors provisionally agreed on the bloc's mandate, which does not mention either enlargement, Turkey or the question of where Europe's final borders might lie.

Sarkozy initially wanted the group to debate the final borders of Europe, but the draft mandate likely to be adopted at a summit next Friday speaks of examining "how the stability and prosperity both of the Union and of the wider region might best be served in the longer term".

In French eyes, it does not prejudge whether Turkey will be in the Union or the "wider region" in 2020-30. Ankara's friends in the EU are fighting to include a reference to "commitments entered into", to underline the bloc has given its word to Turkey that the objective of the talks is full membership.

Brussels says Turkey should press on with reforms regardless of negative comments by Sarkozy and others in Europe. They say progress on reforms will be Ankara's best argument in trying to overcome opposition to its bid.

But France has been blocking the opening of chapters, diplomats say. Some other EU member states, notably Britain, Spain and Sweden, strongly support Turkey's EU drive. Ankara is not seen joining the bloc before 2015 at the earliest.

A Turkish diplomatic source said Ankara may push through another reform sought by the EU before an expected visit to Turkey by Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis in January.

But he said the reform, which would ease property restrictions on non-Muslim religious minorities in Turkey such as the Greek Orthodox community, could hinge on Greece's steps to bolster rights of its own Turkish-speaking Muslim community in the western Thrace region of northern Greece.

In another reform move, Turkey's ruling AK Party signalled on Friday it plans to ease a ban on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf under a new draft constitution.

"This (new) constitution will solve the headscarf problem in a more libertarian spirit," Dengir Firat, a deputy chairman of the AK Party, told CNN Turk television.

The AK party has hinted many times that it wants to modify or if possible remove the headscarf ban, which also applies to government offices.

Turkey's secularists view the headscarf as a symbol of political Islam and a challenge to the country's separation of religion and state. ( Reuters )

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