‘Italy 100 % behind Turkey’s EU membership’

Italy backs Turkish membership of the European Union “100 per cent” but Ankara needs to make progress on key issues such as the Cyprus question, the Italian foreign minister said Thursday.“We are supporting 100 per cent the efforts of Turkey to become a full member of EU, this is also in our national interest,” said Massimo D’Alema. D’Alema appeared beside his Turkish counterpart Ali Babacan in Istanbul, before an audience of academics, businessmen and representatives of both Turkish and Italian organisations.

The minister paid tribute to Turkey’s determination to continue its efforts to join the bloc, but said progress still needed to be made on certain issues. He called on Turkey to do away with Article 301 of its penal code which punishes “insults to national identity”.

Dozens of intellectuals, among them 2006 Nobel Literature laureate Orhan Pamuk and slain ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, have been tried under Article 301.

They have mainly been pursued for having contested the official line on the Ottoman massacres of Armenians: Turkey has fiercely denied the view taken by many countries that they constituted genocide.

D’Alema said it was also time to return to the major EU sticking point of Cyprus with elections coming up on the Mediterranean island next year.

“Next year is an important year because there are elections in Cyprus and I think that the Cyprus problem will be solved much more easily next year,” he said.

The February 2008 presidential election in Cyprus will be the first to allow Turkish Cypriots living in the government-controlled south of the island to vote for the president, alongside Greek Cypriots. Babacan confirmed Ankara’s determination to press for EU membership. “We have made steps to become a first-class democracy and we will continue to do so,” he said.

Last year, the EU froze accession talks with Turkey in eight of the 35 policy areas candidates must negotiate. The move was in response to Ankara’s refusal to allow Greek Cypriot vessels to use its sea and airports under a customs union pact with the bloc.

Earlier this month during a visit to Rome, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to step up work on the reforms required by the EU.

But they face opposition from EU member states such as France, which will hold the EU presidency at the end of 2008. Turkey began adhesion talks with Brussels in 2005.

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