EU urges re-elected Erdogan to up reform tempo

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The European Union saluted the landslide re-election of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party on Monday and urged him to press ahead with stalled reforms required for EU membership.

Victory for the pro-European conservative party which began Ankara’s accession negotiations in 2005 was a boost for its European aspirations, but big hurdles remain with new French President Nicolas Sarkozy firmly opposed to Turkish entry.

“It is essential that the new government will relaunch legal and economic reforms with full determination and concrete results,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told reporters at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

Rehn highlighted the need for greater freedom of expression and religion in the secular but mainly Muslim country, and said the EU could open negotiations in a number of new policy areas, known in EU parlance as “chapters”, by the year-end.

Congratulating Erdogan on his victory, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said: “Prime Minister Erdogan has given his personal commitment to the sustained movement towards the European Union.”

Joost Lagendijk, co-chairman of the EU-Turkey joint parliamentary assembly, said the result was good news for Turkey and Europe provided Erdogan now made up for two lost years by enacting key reforms on freedom of speech and religion.

“I would welcome a return to the reform policies of 2003-4 and I have heard from inside that they are planning to do so,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview, citing plans to amend the penal code to change article 301, used to prosecute writers and journalists for “insulting Turkishness”.

EU officials said privately the Commission’s next annual progress report on Turkey, due on November 7, would have to note a reform standstill unless the re-elected government acted fast.

“The deadline is looming ... And the government has done no reforms in the past 15 months or so,” said Wolfango Piccoli, Turkey expert at Eurasia Group political risk consultancy.

He added that he doubted there would be any moves to solve a trade dispute with EU-member Cyprus that has been dogging entry talks ahead of Cypriot elections next year.

With virtually all votes counted, unofficial results gave the pro-business AKP 46.5 percent, up more than 12 points on 2002, but a more united opposition means it will get 340 out of 550 seats, slightly fewer than now.

Eurosceptic ultra-nationalists fared well in the poll, which analysts said would make it harder for the ruling pro-EU AK Party to quickly press ahead with controversial reforms.

But the AK Party needs the EU help to keep at bay secular critics who accuse it of using the EU-inspired reforms on civil rights as a screen to boost the role of religion.

Turkey’s supporters in the EU were quick to hail the result. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said he believed the win would bring Ankara closer to the European Union and said voters had given Erdogan an “impressive mandate”.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband urged the bloc to support Erdogan’s efforts to lead a stable government and said: “A stable and secure political situation in Turkey is massively in our interests.”

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, whose country has the highest public opposition to Turkish EU entry, told reporters: “We are all interested in having a modern, dynamic, successful Turkey as a partner for the EU.”

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