LONDON (Reuters) - Turkey is committed to joining the European Union despite mounting frustration over decades of talks on the issue, but has little appetite for adopting the euro currency, a senior Turkish official said on Wednesday.
In a speech in London, Turkey’s chief negotiator on EU accession said it was time the EU made up its mind on whether Turkey can join the 27-member bloc, and said it should be allowed in even if some countries object.
Talks on Turkish integration into Europe originally began in 1963, but the intractable dispute over the divided island of Cyprus - an EU member that Turkey does not recognize - have blocked talks on several policy issues candidate states must conclude before entry.
“We want to be in the EU, but the EU has to make a decision. The decision to start the negotiation process with Turkey was a unanimous decision, and only a unanimous decision can put an end to this process,” Egemen Bagis, EU affairs minister and senior member of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party, said.
“If there’s one principle of the EU I would like to criticize it’s the unanimity principle ... One single member country, the Greek Cypriots, can block the opening of the energy chapter,” he said, accusing Cyprus of holding the EU “hostage”.
The island was split in a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup.
Turkish Prime Minster Tayyip Erdogan has said the delay was “unforgivable”, warning that the EU would lose Turkey, a mostly Muslim and largely conservative country, if it was not granted membership by 2023.
Enthusiasm among the Turkish public for EU membership is waning given the bloc’s economic woes, particularly the sovereign debt crisis hitting some members of the currency union, but Bagis was confident any referendum would pass.
“If there was a vote today I could easily get a yes vote ... on membership of the EU, but I‘m not so sure about joining the euro zone,” Bagis said.
That could pose problems for accession given that joining the euro zone single currency bloc is a condition for entry.
However, Bagis said economic circumstances and opposition to the euro and could change by the time accession is agreed.
Formal talks to join the EU have stalled since they were launched in 2005, and Turkey has completed only one of the 35 chapters need for entry.
On Tuesday, France said it was ready to unblock membership talks on one of the chapters, in contrast to its position under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who said Turkey did not form part of Europe.
Bagis said France’s change of heart was “better late than never”, and lambasted “narrow minded” politicians who have objected to accession, citing discrimination and Islamophobia.
Some EU countries express concern about Turkey’s handling of human rights, freedom of expression and treatment of minorities. Turkey says it is addressing those concerns, and on Wednesday drafted changes to its penal code [ID:nL5N0BD3D9].
Bagis dismissed concerns about mass Turkish emigration to other EU countries after accession, saying that Turkey’s growing economic clout meant that it instead was at risk from immigration from other EU states.
“Of course, every nation has their pride. So does mine. And no country has been kept in the waiting room for 54 years. Sometimes our reactions might seem emotional, but believe me if anyone else was in our shoes ...,” he said, referring to when Turkey applied for association with the then European Economic Community.
Turkey, a long-time NATO member, has seen its diplomatic influence rise alongside its economic prosperity. The Islamist-rooted AK Party says Turkey has jumped to 16th largest economy in the world from 26th since it came to power in 2002.
Turkey’s stock is particularly high in the Middle East, where it is seen as a model for a prosperous Islamic democracy, and has won admiration for its tough stance on Israel.
Bagis touted Turkey’s sway in the Middle East as a major boon for Europe should it be allowed to join the EU.
“The EU is the grandest peace project in the history of mankind ... Turkey, being the most eastern part of the West, and the most Western part of the East, can turn this continental project into a global peace project,” he said.
Editing by Alison Williams