BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders on Friday named former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, a past critic of Turkey’s EU membership bid, to head a “reflection group” to study the long-term future of the 27-nation bloc.
The panel was the brainchild of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a vehement opponent of Turkish accession, who first called in August for the EU to create a group of “wise people” to consider Europe’s final borders.
The mandate has since been changed to look at the future of Europe in 2020-2030, focusing mostly on the economic challenges of globalization.
“In this new European dream, the question of borders is bound to be posed, not simply first of all the question of Turkey but should Europe set borders or not,” the French leader told a news conference after an EU summit.
Sarkozy may have scored a point by stealth with the choice of Gonzalez, a socialist who ran Spain from 1982 to 1996 and voiced skepticism three years ago about incorporating the large, poor, mostly Muslim country into the EU.
Spanish newspapers quoted the ex-premier in May 2004 as telling a Universal Forum of Cultures in Barcelona there were limits to the enlargement of Europe, which should “stop at the borders of Turkey” because of social and cultural differences.
Asked about those comments, Gonzalez’s spokesman Joaquin Tagar told Reuters in Madrid on Friday: “He was just expressing a theoretical opinion, not taking a definite position on the matter. He was just pointing out the difference between European and Turkish culture.”
Pressed to say what Gonzalez’s position on Turkey’s candidacy was now, he said: “What he has been saying in recent times is that if the European Union has a commitment to Turkey, it should honor it.”
WHERE DOES EUROPE END?
In Ankara, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said: “The mandate of the wise men group was very important for us and apparently Turkey was excluded. So with regard to Turkey’s EU process, it’s not very important for us who chairs the group.”
The reflection group, which will number no more than nine members, is mandated to look at “the stability and prosperity of the Union and of the wider region”.
The formulation deliberately left open whether Turkey would be part of the Union or the wider region in 2020-2030.
The panel will also look at issues such as energy, climate change and justice matters. It is due to report its findings to EU leaders in June 2010.
Former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga and Jorma Ollila, the chairman of mobile phone giant Nokia, were named as the two vice-chairs of the panel.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero voiced delight at the choice of his political mentor for the key chairman role, and said it had not been ruled out that the group could discuss the EU’s borders.
“It’s not excluded that there is a reflection about what the size of Europe should be in the future,” he told reporters.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said it was “extremely partial” to describe Gonzalez as being against Turkey’s EU membership.
Some politicians were critical of the choice of a leader from the 1980s to study the EU’s future.
“If you ever wanted to see Jurassic Park in reality, then this appointment (of Gonzalez) is just that,” Graham Watson, leader of the Liberal Democrat group in the European Parliament.
“It’s not about age, but all three of the panel so far represent old Europe.”
Additional reporting by Jason Webb in Madrid, Yves Clarisse and Ingrid Melander in Brussels; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia
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