(CNSNews.com) – President Obama’s warm reception in Europe took a chilly turn Sunday after some leaders took issue with his support for Turkey’s aspirations to join the European Union.
Speaking ahead of his arrival in Ankara late Sunday for his first visit as president to a Muslim country, Obama urged E.U. leaders in Prague to move ahead with E.U. membership for Turkey.
Doing so would be an important signal of the E.U.’s commitment to an agenda, jointly with the U.S., of “approach[ing] Muslims as our friends, neighbors and partners in fighting injustice, intolerance and violence,” he said.
Obama’s remarks drew a veiled rebuke from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who told French television that “it is up to member-states of the European Union to decide” on whether Turkey should be allowed to join.
Sarkozy also reiterated his opposition to membership for Turkey.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is also leery about admitting a country that would replace Germany as the E.U.’s biggest member, said E.U. members were still “wrestling” over whether Ankara should be welcomed as a full member state or have some sort of “privileged partnership” – a German proposal Turkey has flatly rejected in the past.
Turkey, a NATO ally since 1952, has been seeking membership in Europe for decades. It was officially declared a candidate for E.U. membership since 1999, and full negotiations began in 2005.
Supporters of the bid – including the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations – say the country is a potentially crucial bridge between the West and Islam.
Arguments against Turkish accession include concerns about Turkey’s human rights record, especially regarding its long campaign against Kurdish separatists, fears of being flooded by Turkish migrants, and an unresolved dispute over Turkish-backed Northern Cyprus.
For many Europeans, the cultural and religious differences between Turkey and traditionally Christian Europe are a key worry. While constitutionally a secular state, Turkey’s population is 99 percent Muslim.
Turkey flexes muscles, wins concessions
Illustrating difficulties that could lie ahead in the religious/cultural area, Turkey in recent days sought to block plans by its NATO allies to name Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as the alliance’s new secretary-general.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan charged that Rasmussen had not been sufficiently apologetic about the publication in Danish newspapers in 2005 of cartoons satirizing Mohammed.
Erdogan also raised an unresolved row over the fact that a Kurdish television channel which Ankara regards as a mouthpiece for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) broadcasts from Denmark. Roj TV has long denied the charge, and Danish broadcasting authorities have cleared the station of accusations that it incites hatred.
Both issues – the cartoons and the television broadcasts – highlight differences over freedom of expression between Muslim nations and Western democracies.
Amid worldwide Muslim protests at the time, Rasmussen maintained that the publication of the cartoons was a free speech issue. The episode significantly boosted a campaign by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to promote resolutions at the U.N. aimed at outlawing what it calls religious “defamation.”
NATO decisions require consensus, and Turkey’s threat to veto the decision for Rasmussen to take over from August 1 cast a pall over the 26-member alliance’s 60th anniversary summit along the France-Germany border.
After Obama met with Turkish President Abdullah Gul on Saturday, however, Turkey dropped its objections.
Gul said afterwards the meeting had “produced very fruitful results” and Erdogan subsequently told Turkish reporters Turkey had received Obama’s “guarantees” that a Turk would be appointed as one of Rasmussen’s deputies at NATO headquarters.
According to leading Turkish newspapers, Turkey obtained other concessions too.
Hurriyet said Rasmussen would apologize for the cartoons and shut down the television station’s broadcasts. Milliyet said the leaders agreed to “a package” to persuade Turkey to change its stance, including an agreement for NATO to establish contacts with the OIC.
Last month, OIC secretary general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu – a Turk – expressed reservations about the prospect of Rasmussen heading NATO.
“If NATO intends to be busy with the Muslim world and issues like Afghanistan, the person it will elect as NATO secretary-general should be acceptable to these societies,” he said.
For his part, Rasmussen said at the NATO summit that he would “make a very clear outreach to the Muslim world to ensure cooperation and intensify dialogue with the Muslim world.”
The outgoing Danish premier is scheduled to address a gathering in Istanbul Monday of the U.N.-backed Alliance of Civilizations (AoC), a project that aims to improve ties between Islam and the West.
Erdogan said he expected Rasmussen to use the opportunity to ease Muslims concerns, prompting speculation that the Dane, who was hailed as a free speech hero during the cartoon crisis, would finally apologize.
Obama is also due to speak at the AoC meeting during his two-day visit.