Paris (CNSNews.com) - The Turkish foreign minister emphasized the importance of Turkey's membership in the European Union this week, even as Europeans continue to debate the future shape and size of their union.
Negotiations for Turkey to join the 25-member bloc got underway last October, and all parties agree that these negotiations will last a long time, probably between 10 and 15 years.
During a stop in Paris to attend a Europe-Mediterranean-Gulf cultural workshop hosted by President Jacques Chirac, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said the lengthy negotiations would give Turkey time to meet the criteria set for membership and there would be no more cause for objections at that time.
"When Turkey becomes a member of the European Union, it will be very different from the Turkey of today," said Gul, speaking at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris on Thursday evening.
The foreign minister emphasized Turkey's rapid economic growth and its position as the 17th largest economic power in the world. Those who had doubts about Turkey's place in the union would come to see his country as a valuable, dynamic and essential member of the EU, said Gul.
Although the European Commission accepted Turkey's application to negotiate for membership, some polls indicate that a majority of the population in some countries, including France, Germany and Austria, are opposed to it. Opponents say the Muslim country, which straddles Europe and Asia, would not fit into the European Judeo-Christian heritage shared by other members of the European Union.
In addition, there has been renewed political debate across Europe about welcoming new member states from former Iron Curtain countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and the Ukraine, which are scheduled to join in 2007. Last year, voters in France and the Netherlands rejected a proposed European constitution amidst fears that the Brussels-based European commission would hold too much influence on national policies.
In its bid to meet the European Union's requirements on democracy, human rights and justice, Turkey has undertaken a series of vast reform packages.
Arguing that Turkey would be an important and valuable member of the union, Gul pointed out that his country was at the crossroads of gas and oil pipeline deliveries to Europe and it was preferable to have an EU member in this position.
He emphasized that Turkey's "inclusive" relations with both its western European neighbors and its Islamic ones such as Iran and Iraq made it an essential partner in negotiating for the stability in the region.
The foreign minister confirmed Turkey's position as a staunch US ally but acknowledged that Ankara could also have differences of opinion with Washington. He said he had been opposed to the allied intervention in Iraq and had warned that it could become "a Pandora's box."
Gul warned against partitioning Iraq along sectarian lines.
"A country that could have been one of the richest in the world is right now suffering the most," he said.
"What will happen if Iraq is dismembered? There will be unimaginable chaos," he said. "The impasse would last for years and the neighboring countries too would have a different attitude then."
Gul said he believed the current diplomatic negotiations with Iran on halting Tehran's development of a nuclear weapon were on the right track and Iran knew this and appreciated it. The questions that still needed to be worked out were how the terms would be implemented and what kind of guarantees there would be.
"Iran must be taken absolutely seriously and one must have a serious approach towards relations with that country," he said, citing Iran's position as a powerful country in the region with a long and proud history.
Gul affirmed that diplomatic negotiations needed to be pursued because an embargo would not necessarily solve the situation, just as it had not when it was used against Iraq.
Responding to questions about religious freedom in his country, which considers itself a secular state but is largely populated by Muslims, Gul said religious freedom had a long tradition in Turkey and Islam was a personal choice and not a political one.
He said Christian minorities had the right to exercise their religion, though this was governed by separate laws for religious minorities.
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