PARIS -- Germany and France will propose a schedule under which the European Union could start membership talks with Turkey in July 2005, French President Jacques Chirac said Thursday.
The proposal drew fire from Turkish leaders, who said that was too long a wait for a nation that has demonstrated a strong desire to join the EU. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of Turkey's ruling party, said the schedule was unfair and "unacceptable."
France and Germany intend to put forward the schedule at next week's summit of the EU's 15 national leaders in Copenhagen, Denmark, where Turkey's effort to integrate more closely with Western Europe will be on the agenda.
Turkey has long been a key member of the NATO military alliance because of its strategic location near the Middle East and the former Soviet Union. U.S. warplanes are based at Incirlik, an air base built during the Cold War that is about an hour's flight from northern Iraq.
But Turkey's efforts to join the EU have lagged, in part because of human rights concerns. Some European leaders have angered Turkish officials by portraying the EU as a club of Christian nations ill-suited to integrating a secular Muslim country.
The United States strongly supports Turkey's bid. But many EU governments want to see Turkey carry out further democratic reforms.
Under the French-German plan, EU leaders would set a meeting for December 2004 to determine whether Turkey had "fully respected" criteria established in Copenhagen, Chirac said.
If Turkey meets those targets, negotiations toward bringing in Turkey could start as early as July 2005, Chirac said after meeting with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
The Danish leader, however, said it was too early "to know exactly what decisions will be taken in Copenhagen." Denmark now holds the rotating EU presidency.
Erdogan, the leader of the Islamic-rooted party of Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul, said the French-German proposal amounted to a "date for a date."
"I find this decision still disputable," Erdogan said in an interview with CNN-Turk TV. "This is not fair. This is unacceptable."
"To display such double standards against a country with such an interest, affection and determination (toward the EU) brings questions to our minds," he said in an apparent reference to accusations that the EU is reluctant to accept a mainly Muslim country.
Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis, speaking in Brussels, said other applicant countries in the past had been granted a date even though they had not fulfilled the EU criteria for membership.
"There is no explanation why Turkey is not given an outright date," Turkish news agency Anatolia quoted Yakis as saying.
Officials in Germany, who spoke condition of anonymity, said Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder agreed on the plan at a meeting outside Berlin on Wednesday.
Turkey's new government of the Justice and Development Party has pledged to make a new push for EU membership since sweeping Nov. 3 elections. The party with Islamic roots says it is committed to Turkey's staunchly secular laws and calls itself a modern, conservative party.
Gul said Thursday that Turkey wanted the European Union to set a date for it to begin membership talks during the Dec. 12-13 Copenhagen summit, and would not settle for anything less.
Gul's government has drafted legislation designed to stop torture and widen freedom of expression to boost Turkey's membership bid. The government wants to rush the laws through parliament before the EU summit.
At their last meeting in Brussels in October, EU leaders decided against setting a date for the start of membership talks with Turkey, which has been a candidate for EU membership since 1999.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Associated Press Writer Tony Czuczka contributed to this report.