PRAGUE (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama urged the European Union on Sunday to accept Turkey as a full member of the 27-nation bloc, in remarks rejected outright by France and met coolly by Germany.
The disagreement was a rare outward sign of divergence at an EU-U.S. summit stage-managed to relaunch transatlantic ties that were strained under the Bush administration and which both sides are now eager to mend.
“The United States and Europe must approach Muslims as our friends, neighbors and partners in fighting injustice, intolerance and violence, forging a relationship based on mutual respect and mutual interests,” Obama told the summit.
“Moving forward toward Turkish membership in the EU would be an important signal of your (EU) commitment to this agenda and ensure that we continue to anchor Turkey firmly in Europe,” he told EU leaders.
Turkey has long been seeking to join the bloc, and Obama’s comments were a reaffirmation of U.S. support for that goal.
But there is resistance among EU states such as Germany and France to its membership, including among ruling conservatives.
Sarkozy said it was up to the EU member states to decide on Turkish entry and reiterated his opposition. “I have always been opposed to this entry,” he told France’s TF1 television.
“I still am and I think I can say that the immense majority of member states shares the position of France,” he said.
“Turkey is a very great country, an ally of Europe, an ally of the United States. It will stay a privileged partner. My position hasn’t changed and it won’t change,” he said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was clearly in the interest of all to forge ties between the EU and the Muslim world, but asked to comment directly on Obama’s remarks, she noted only: “It’s clear there are different opinions.”
Merkel said the form of any future connection between the EU and Turkey was still not clear, a reference to the possibility of a privileged partnership stopping short of actual membership — a formula favored by French and German conservatives.
Turkish entry talks with the EU have been held up by European concerns over human rights, a perceived lack of progress on reforms, and by a long territorial dispute with EU member Cyprus. Membership is seen many years off at best.
Successive U.S. administrations have seen EU membership for Turkey as a way of further binding into the West a NATO member positioned strategically as a key energy hub between Europe and valuable energy resources in the Caspian Sea and beyond.
The European Commission, which as the EU executive is responsible for handling negotiations with Ankara, welcomed Obama’s comments.
“We have started a process of negotiations with Turkey for membership,” Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said, pointedly referring to the fact that the terms of negotiation point toward membership rather than any lower level of ties.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said he also backed Obama’s support for EU membership for Turkey, telling reporters he was confident that current obstacles holding back Ankara’s talks with Brussels could be solved.
Additional reporting by James Mackenzie in Paris and Giuseppe Fonte and Jana Mlcochova in Prague, writing by Mark John