ANKARA, Turkey – Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (search) said Friday he was disappointed by the failure of European Union constitutional referendums but Turkey was determined to press forward with its efforts to join the bloc.
Erdogan, speaking in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press ahead of a meeting at the White House with President Bush (search), also said he expected EU countries to back Turkey's membership when the country completed its reforms.
Erdogan rejected the idea that voters were reacting to eventual Turkish membership.
"In France there was no anti-Turkish sentiment," Erdogan said. "There was some in the Netherlands, but even there, unemployment, economy, security were at the forefront."
"We are beyond the question of whether to be included or not," he said. "If we are successful in this, all member countries will show fairness toward us."
Voters in France and the Netherlands voted against a proposed EU constitution (search) earlier this week, raising the question of whether the 25-nation bloc is willing to keep expanding its borders.
Turkish membership was a key issue in both countries, where there is growing opposition to immigration from Muslim countries and serious questions about whether the EU should allow in a mostly poor, Muslim country of 70 million.
Erdogan has largely staked his premiership on the drive to realize the dream of Turkey, once the heartland of the Ottoman Empire but now a secular state, to become part of Europe.
He admitted that the referendums were a setback.
"I would have wished that the results in France or the Netherlands were not as such," he told AP, speaking in the garden of his official residence. "There is a negative climate prevailing."
But he added that "an EU which is on its way to becoming a global power will overcome this."
Erdogan's party passed a series of reforms aimed at strengthening democracy and freedoms but has carried out few changes since the bloc agreed last year to open accession talks with Turkey next October. The referendum results raised concerns that Turkish legislators may be more reticent in supporting reforms aimed at gaining EU membership.
"We believe that we will achieve the reforms because we have the determination to do so and we have the support both in parliament and outside," Erdogan said.
Erdogan also he planned to ask Bush during their meeting Wednesday to crack down on Turkish Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq. Several thousand rebels are believed to be based in the mountains of northern Iraq and the rebels have recently increased attacks in southern Turkey.
Erdogan and other Turkish leaders repeatedly have insisted that the U.S. take action against the rebels, but U.S. military officers have been extremely reluctant to attack the rebels' mountain bases and divert troops from other parts of the country. U.S. officers also are afraid of destabilizing one of the few quiet areas of Iraq.
When asked what steps the U.S. should take against the rebels, Erdogan said he wanted "them to be totally taken out of northern Iraq."
"They are involved in armed training in northern Iraq and they infiltrate into Turkey," Erdogan said. "Unfortunately terrorism which is being nourished there is continuing to create trouble."