European leaders gathered at a summit here formally rebuffed today efforts by Turkey to start talks next year on joining the European Union, saying the predominantly Muslim country needed more time to demonstrate progress on improving human rights and democracy and reducing the military's influence on politics.
At the start of a summit aimed at expanding the EU eastward, the union's 15 leaders used a dinner last night to deal with the vexing issue of Turkey, whose membership application had divided European leaders and threatened to overshadow this historic meeting. President Bush had personally lobbied the European leaders for early talks with Turkey, which the United States is courting for help in a possible war with Iraq.
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the summit host, praised reforms already undertaken by Turkey as "a major step forward" but said they were not sufficient to allow the country to formally enter accession talks.
"We stick to the principle that Turkey can get a date for the start of accession negotiations if and when Turkey fulfills the political criteria," Rasmussen said at a news conference early this morning. He said a review would be undertaken in December 2004 to measure Turkey's progress, and talks could begin "as soon as possible" afterward, meaning no earlier than 2005.
Turkey, which straddles Europe and Asia and has long had European aspirations, had been hoping to start talks on joining the EU as early as next year. Some Turkish leaders have accused the EU of hypocrisy and racism for opening talks with countries from Eastern Europe that were not fully prepared politically. Joining the EU had been the principle foreign policy goal of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of Turkey's new governing party, and he received forceful support this week from Bush.
Bush considers Turkey a strategic ally, whose support would be crucial for a war with its neighbor Iraq. But some Europeans expressed anger at what they said was interference from the White House in what was essentially a European issue, and they said Bush's involvement showed a lack of sensitivity to domestic concerns among Europeans not yet ready to see a Muslim country invited to join the EU.
Erdogan had said earlier that a proposal first advanced by Germany and France to begin EU membership talks in 2005 was "unacceptable." Rasmussen said the Danish foreign minister, Per Stig Moeller, had already informed the Turkish government of the decision, but that there was no official reaction to the rebuff.
Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain had joined the United States in pushing for Turkey's candidacy. Blair had said he believed that allowing Turkey to join the EU would send "an important signal to the Islamic world," according to his official spokesman, Tom Kelly. "We think a firm date is necessary, and we want that as soon as possible," Kelly said before the decision was made.
Britain was supported by Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy. But other countries, notably France and Germany, opposed starting talks early. Some countries were concerned about political backlash from their citizens.
In the past year, anti-immigrant parties in several countries, including the Netherlands, France and Denmark, have made electoral gains by tapping into widespread public sentiment that the continent is being swamped by poor, Muslim immigrants. EU membership would give Turkey's 70 million citizens the right to live and work anywhere in the union.
Other countries, including Sweden, have expressed concern about human rights in Turkey.
Many officials here said they thought Bush's intervention was not only inappropriate, but counter-productive.
"It's certainly not up to the president of the United States to interfere in something so important and which mainly concerns Europeans," the French industry minister, Nicole Fontaine, told a radio interviewer Thursday, according to the Reuters news service.
The summit was also convened to discuss issuing formal invitations to 10 countries to join in 2004 -- Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus. Last-minute negotiations continue concerning the financial terms of their membership.