November 20, 2009 / 6:32 PM / 8 years ago

New EU president raises fears in aspirant Turkey

<p>Belgium's Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, who was elected European Union President during an EU leaders summit on Thursday, leaves his office after a cabinet meeting in Brussels November 20, 2009.Yves Herman</p>

ANKARA (Reuters) - Herman Van Rompuy's appointment as the first European Union president provoked fears in Turkey that he might hinder Ankara's hopes of joining the bloc, with some media declaring outright that he is anti-Turkish.

Turkish newspapers were quick to dig out past comments attributed to Van Rompuy that the EU's Christian values would lose vigor if Muslim Turkey were let in.

Turkish politicians and academics reacted more cautiously to the Belgian Prime Minister's elevation to the new EU job on Thursday, but few drew much comfort from it.

One front-page newspaper headline on Friday declared baldly: "The EU first president is anti-Turkish."

Turkish officials, who would have preferred someone more positive to Turkey such as former British prime minister Tony Blair, reacted coolly to Van Rompuy's appointment.

"It is difficult to interpret the selection in an optimistic way, but I do not see it having an impact directly in the short term," said Suat Kiniklioglu, the ruling AK Party's deputy chairman of foreign relations. "I hope he revises his views in the short term. But I can't be optimistic."

Turkish views on Van Rompuy, a Christian Democrat, have been shaped by comments that he is reported to have made while opposition leader five years ago.

"Turkey is not a part of Europe and will never be part of Europe," the independent online newspaper EUobserver.com quoted him as saying in December, 2004.

"The universal values which are in force in Europe, and which are also fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigor with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey," he told a meeting of the Council of Europe on the subject of Turkey's possible entry into the EU.

Asked about his past views on Turkey, Van Rompuy told a news conference on Thursday that his personal views were "irrelevant" and that in his new role he would be seeking as much consensus as possible within member states.

"Van Rompuy is a compromise candidate, but he is obviously backed by France and Germany, so this is not good news for Turkey," said Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations at Middle Eastern Technical University in Ankara.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German's Chancellor Angela Merkel have said they would sooner offer Turkey a "privileged partnership" than full EU membership.

"It is not the end of the road, but Turkey needs to make progress and soon," said Bagci.

EU countries agreed unanimously in 2005 to start talks with Turkey with the goal of full membership, but the bloc appears deeply divided on the issue.

Turkey is a valued member of the NATO alliance, but opponents of its bid to join the EU say the Muslim country of 72 million is too poor and culturally different to fit in.

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At Thursday's summit EU leaders also chose Briton Catherine Ashton as EU foreign affairs chief. She won better reviews in Turkey. Kiniklioglu said the appointment of Ashton, a center-left EU Commissioner who is regarded as a supporter of Turkey's bid, could help to offset the president's influence.

Financial markets shrugged off Van Rompuy's appointment. Turkey's need for rigorous reform to meet EU requirements has been regarded as a "policy anchor" that boosted its appeal to investors. But this has been less so of late.

"The EU anchor has been eased in the last couple of years so the markets do not see this as a factor to price in, in the short term," said Istanbul-based HSBC economist Fatih Keresteci.

Opinion polls show Turks becoming less enthusiastic about Europe. The AK Party, which secured Turkey's decades-long quest to launch official negotiations to join the EU, has repeatedly pledged its intention to persevere with the bid.

Some diplomats in Brussels, however, say Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has become less keen, and recent foreign policy moves fed perceptions that Turkey could be turning away from the West, to engage more deeply with fellow Muslim neighbors.

Amanda Akcakoca, an analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussels, expected Van Rompuy to be pragmatic. "The last thing you want to do is come to the global scene and send the message that Turkey is not welcomed in the EU because it is an Islamic country."

Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore/ David Stamp

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