Turkish president to lobby reluctant France for EU membership

Turkish President Abdullah Gul flew into France on Wednesday, officially in the context of a Turkish cultural season in France. But he is also expected to lobby hard for Turkey's bid for EU membership.


AFP - President Abdullah Gul flew into France on Wednesday to bring Turkey's campaign for membership of the European Union to the country that is leading the drive to exclude it.

Gul was greeted at the airport by France's Minister for European Affairs Pierre Lellouche, according to French officials, and began a three-day programme of meetings and speeches.

Before setting off, he insisted his mainly-Muslim state was making good progress on reforms required by the 27-nation bloc.

He is nevertheless expected to meet firm opposition from his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy.

"Our priority is to put into practice what we learned from the European Union. We are focused on this aim since we came to power," Gul told AFP, defending the record of his Islamist-rooted government.

Gul was to meet foreign policy experts later Wednesday and Prime Minister Francois Fillon on Thursday, taking time to persuade French opinion of his case before meeting Sarkozy, who is staunchly opposed to Turkey's bid, on Friday.

Turkey began membership negotiations in 2005, but has so far opened talks in only 11 of the 35 policy areas that candidates must complete, while France, Germany and other EU members have sought to slow or halt the process.

Sarkozy says Turkey -- of which only a small portion west of the Bosphorus is geographically in Europe and whose large population would be the first in the bloc to be mainly Muslim -- should settle for a partnership agreement.

In June, hopes that France might soften its stance were raised when Sarkozy appointed a new minister for Europe, Pierre Lellouche, known to favour Turkish membership. The minister, however, now publicly backs his president.

"We want Turkey to be a bridge between East and West," Sarkozy declared in June during an appearance with President Barack Obama at which he disagreed with the US leader's support for Turkish EU membership.

"I told President Obama that it's very important for Europe to have borders. For me, Europe is a force stability in the world and I cannot allow that force for stabilisation to be destroyed," Sarkozy declared.

This position, which is popular with a French electorate nervous of allowing 76 million new citizens to compete on the European job market, is unlikely to change this week.

And, despite window dressing such as a Turkish cultural season to be held in France from this week, relations between the two countries are tense.

"In the past five years you can see a real degradation in ties. Bridges have been burned. Polite talk won't change anything," said Didier Billion, of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

Billion said France had a "schizophrenic attitude" with Turkey, on the one hand reaching out with gestures like a cultural season, on the other thwarting its diplomatic initiatives.

Lellouche has suggested that Turkey could arrange privileged trading ties with Europe -- "like we have with Brazil" -- but Gul has argues his country could have special value as Europe's Muslim partner.

"When the EU began to have links with Turkey, this country was already a Muslim country, there is nothing new in this. Besides, the EU never defined itself as a religious union," Gul said.

"Its common values are democracy, human rights and the supremacy of the rule of law. It is on this basis that we have built our relations with Europe.

"Not only does Turkey adopt the criteria of Europe, but it also plays a role in spreading these values in the region," he said, suggesting Turkish membership could improve ties with the Middle East.

France appreciates Turkey's engagement in the diplomatic problems posed by Iran, Syria and the Middle East conflict, and hails Ankara's renewal of ties with Armenia and efforts to improve the fate of its own Kurdish minority.

But Paris has been disappointed by Turkey's failure to resolve its longstanding sovereignty dispute with Cyprus or halt the stream of illegal immigrants flowing through its territory towards the Union.

France was also shocked when Turkey opposed Anders Fogh Rasmussen's appointment as NATO secretary general because of his Danish government's support for free expression in the row over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

French economic ties with Turkey have been hit by the tension, according to Billion, with several companies including Gaz de France finding themselves excluded from major deals such as the Nabucco gas pipeline project.

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