Bush Backs Turkey's Entry to E.U.

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 3, 2006

President Bush voiced support for Turkey's entry to the European Union yesterday after meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a long session that also focused on ways to counter extremism, instability in the Middle East and the continued violence in Iraq.

The meeting between the two leaders lasted nearly two hours -- almost an hour longer than scheduled -- and White House aides called this a reflection of Turkey's critical relationship with the United States.

"Our desire is . . . to help people who care about a peaceful future to reject radicalism and extremism," Bush said after the Oval Office meeting. "I made it very clear to the prime minister I think it's in the United States' interests that Turkey join the European Union."

Speaking through an interpreter, Erdogan thanked Bush for the endorsement, adding that "the United States is a strategic partner, a very important strategic partner for Turkey."

Last fall, the E.U. began talks with Turkey with the aim of having the country join the 25-member bloc. But those talks have gotten off to a rocky start, as the E.U. has pressured Turkey to cooperate in reaching a comprehensive settlement for the reunification of Cyprus and on rights for Turkey's Kurdish minority as conditions of membership.

Many European countries are experiencing a surge of anti-immigration sentiment, causing some anxiety around the prospect of admitting a 99 percent Muslim nation that has more than 70 million citizens, many of whom are poor by European standards. Membership in the E.U. can come with relaxed immigration rules.

Meanwhile, support for E.U. membership is beginning to wane among Turkish citizens, although a sizable majority still favor joining.

In an interview, Erdogan said the majority of Turks still view E.U. membership as something that would produce economic benefits and improve their quality of life. At the same time, he said, the European position on the Cyprus issue is causing a backlash against the idea of joining.

"At times, the statements made by the E.U. have a negative impact on Turkish public opinion," Erdogan said.

Cyprus, divided into ethnic Greek and Turkish zones since a 1974 invasion by Turkish troops, was admitted to the E.U. in 2004. Turkey refuses to deal with the Greek zone, which is administered by the island's internationally recognized government. Meanwhile, the Turkish zone, recognized only by Turkey, has been subjected to a widespread diplomatic and economic boycott.

When it came to terrorism, Bush and Erdogan did not explicitly mention the simmering tension caused by a paramilitary group that has been battling to establish an autonomous Kurdish region near the intersection of Turkey, Iraq and Iran for more than two decades. Fighters for the Kurdistan Workers' Party often cross into Turkey from northern Iraq to launch terrorist attacks, causing Turkey to complain that the United States should do more to clamp down on the group.

The United States has pledged its support in cracking down on the rebel group, but officials worry that a military offensive would alienate Iraqi Kurds, the group most supportive of the U.S. presence in Iraq. The United States and Turkey have designated envoys to work on a plan to resolve the situation, and in the interview, Erdogan said he is willing to let that process play itself out.

In his statements after his meeting with Bush and in the interview, Erdogan said he is committed to battling terrorism. But he scolded those who link the Muslim religion to the terrorism of al-Qaeda and other extremists who perpetrate violence in the name of Islam.

"The coinage of such terms as 'Islamic terrorism' or 'Islamo-fascism,' these have injured the Muslim people in the world, and it is best to avoid such characterizations," Erdogan said.

Asked whether he planned to communicate that to Bush, who frequently invokes such phrases in speeches, he said he has in the past. "In the same way as we consider anti-Semitism a crime against humanity," he said, "Islamo-phobia is also a crime against humanity."

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