EU Chief Says Turkey's Membership 'Poweful Alternative' to Radical Islam

Predominantly Muslim Turkey's integration into Europe would offer "a powerful alternative" to radical Islam throughout the world, EU chief Jose Manuel Barroso said Thursday.

Barroso, on the first day of a three-day visit to this country vying for EU membership, said however the country must strengthen democracy and carry out more reforms to join the 27-member group.

"Turkey demonstrates that a secular democratic republic, with a predominantly Muslim population, well integrated in Europe, offers a powerful alternative to fundamentalist temptations throughout the world," Barroso said in an address to Turkey's Parliament.

However, Barroso warned: "There is no shortcut to accession" for Turkey.

He praised reforms such as the abolition of the death penalty and the introduction of broadcasting and private courses in the Kurdish language. But the EU chief said progress was needed in other areas, including expanding freedom of expression and curbing the military's influence on politics.

The reforms "are part of our common values, they are central to progress and modernity and, indeed, they are also the keys to accession," Barroso said.

Earlier, in a joint news conference with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Barroso said a government proposal to ease the law curbing free speech "represents a step in the right direction."

"For us the most important thing is to assure freedom of expression," Barroso said.

Turkish lawmakers will vote and pass the reform next week, Erdogan has said. The reform would soften a law that restricts freedom of speech and has been used to prosecute Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk and other intellectuals. The government has a comfortable majority to approve the amendment.

Erdogan for his part, assured his country's full determination to maintain the reform process but reiterated that his country would not agree to anything short of full membership. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said he prefers an EU partnership with Turkey rather than full membership.

A day earlier, Barroso had warned that attempts to ban Erdogan's Islamic-rooted governing party could harm ties with the 27-nation bloc.

"Since Turkey is a candidate country, we cannot be indifferent to this kind of development," Barroso told reporters Thursday.

"We were surprised, because it is not common for this kind of case in a stable, democratic country," he said.

But he made no reference to the court case in his address to the Parliament.

Earlier, the leader of Turkey's main opposition party threatened to walk out if Barroso commented on attempts to ban the ruling Islamic-rooted party during his address to Parliament, a Turkish TV station reported. The opposition riles at any European interference in Turkey's domestic affairs.

In his speech Barroso instead said the EU was "following the latest developments with utmost attention."

"Turkey needs to devote all its energies to pursuing long-awaited reforms, and should not be distracted from this goal," he said.

Barroso on Wednesday said the case against Erdogan's Justice and Development Party "could have a major impact also in the way Turkey is seen" by EU nations and whether it should continue its bid to join the bloc.

The EU opened entry talks with Turkey in 2005, but there has been little progress amid disagreements over Cyprus and opposition from France and other EU countries.

Barroso encouraged Turkey to brace for strong opposition to its membership within EU countries.

"Certainly, fear and prejudice, based on mutual ignorance, remains one of the biggest enemies of this project," Barroso told Parliament. "Thus, it is fundamental that people in the EU and in Turkey get to know each other better."