AMSTERDAM — European countries should not allow themselves to be guided by fear of the Islamic faith when discussing the entry of Turkey into the European Union, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said on Wednesday.
“Islam is not the problem. Muslims, Christians and people of other beliefs can live together perfectly well. The problem is not religion but misuse of religion to sow hatred and intolerance and to oppress women,” Balkenende said.
European governments will decide in December whether negotiations can be started with Turkey about its entry to the EU. The Netherlands — which currently holds the six-month rotating EU Presidency — will supervise those talks.
And speaking to the European Parliament in Strasbourg in France on Wednesday, Balkenende said the decision must be fair. He demanded a strict application of the criteria decided on in Copenhagen in 2002, but is opposed to the creation of new demands.
The prime minister recognised that a decision over Turkey’s entry is a difficult issue. French President Jacques Chirac and the German Christian Democrats are concerned about Turkey’s possible inclusion as the 26th EU member state.
If allowed to join, Turkey, with a population of 68.8 million, would be the second biggest country in the EU. Germany is the largest with a population of 82.4 million. France, Italy and the UK have populations of about 60 million.
The prospect of the vast Muslim-majority country joining the EU has sparked fierce debate over whether it is truly European and has made enough progress towards democratic norms, French news agency AFP reported.
The European Commission is due to issue a report later this year on whether Turkey meets the standards required to open the talks. The Dutch government is favourable to Turkey’s bid.
And Balkenende’s speech on Wednesday led to mixed reactions from the Parliament. The leader of the Christian Democrat faction, Hans-Gert Poettering, urged the Dutch leader to think of other alternatives, such as granting Turkey a “privileged partnership” instead of entry to the EU.
But the European Greens faction shared Balkenende’s opinion that the Islamic faith should not play a role in the decision-making process, newspaper De Telegraaf reported.
“That is important coming from a Christian Democrat such as Balkenende. Hopefully, he can perform missionary work by party colleagues in other countries,” faction leader Monica Frassoni said.
But the extreme right Vlaams Blok said it hoped that Balkenende strictly applied the entry criteria and not only judged Turkey on the progress made in recent months.
“For us, it is clear that Turkey did not satisfy the criteria yesterday, today and will not (satisfy the criteria) tomorrow or in December,” Vlaams Blok MEP Philip Claeys said.
He also fears that if granted entry, Turkey — which would then be one of the largest EU countries — could in future dominate the union.