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Thursday, 12 December, 2002, 22:23 GMT
Blair presses for Turkey's EU membership
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair
'Historic opportunity', says Mr Blair
Prime Minister Tony Blair has stepped up pressure on the EU to set a firm date for Turkey's accession to the community, saying it now had an "historic opportunity" to act.

He was speaking as the landmark Copenhagen summit began, with Denmark urging 10 potential new members to accept the EU's terms for entry or risk delaying enlargement for many years.

I think this is a very important and exciting moment for the European Union and for Turkey

Tony Blair
Mr Blair is eager to push ahead, not just with accession for Bulgaria and Romania, which have already achieved basic qualifying reforms, but also with Turkey, which has not.

But his comments put him at odds with French President Jacques Chirac, who has been less supportive of early succession for Turkey.

"I think this is a very important and exciting moment for the European Union and for Turkey," the prime minister said after arriving in Copenhagen on Thursday for talks with his Turkish counterpart.

"I believe we have an historic opportunity to set a firm date for the opening of accession negotiations for Turkey, and to send the clearest possible signal that the European Union wants Turkey inside the European family as a full partner."

'US pressure'

There was a "huge and important reform process going on in Turkey" and it was time "to show faith in that reform process and to make sure Turkey is given a firm and clear date", he said.

Turkey hopes finally to get a date to start negotiations on joining the EU.

It has been kept waiting for decades because of its poor human rights record, but the newly-elected government believes a recent rush of new legislation means entry talks should begin soon.

The US is cranking up the pressure on the EU to keep sweet a country of crucial strategic importance to Washington - much to President Chirac's annoyance.

Mr Blair's attempts to put the Americans' case is setting him on a collision cause with the French president, who is wary of upsetting the far right in his country by opening negotiations with Turkey ahead of the next European elections.

But the prime minister has made it clear he will be fighting Turkey's corner and sees no reason why it cannot be given a date now.

The summit must finalise the financial entry of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Malta, Slovenia and Slovakia, who are joining the EU in 2004.

The gathering also has to deal with Poland's demand for an extra 1.4bn to boost EU subsidies for their farmers.


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