BRUSSELS, Belgium — Monday’s vote by the French Senate to make it a criminal offense to deny that Turkish forces committed genocide against Armenians early in the 20th century could have far-reaching consequences for Turkey’s already strained relations with Europe.
Although Turkish diplomats in Brussels stressed that the dispute remains a bilateral spat between Paris and Ankara, the French bill and Turkey’s furious response to it are yet another setback to stalled efforts to bring Turkey into the European Union.
The rift between the two NATO allies could even undermine efforts to build a unified approach by the EU and Turkey on key Middle East issues such as Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the unrest in Syria.
More from GlobalPost: Turkey warns France over Armenian genocide bill (VIDEO)
Although the French government did not formally back the genocide bill in parliament, many Turks believe it to be part of a campaign by President Nicolas Sarkozy to prevent their country from joining the EU.
Sarkozy has frequently raised objections to Turkish EU membership, even though the bloc has accepted the mainly Muslim country of 73 million as an official candidate and opened membership talks in 2005.
Many in Turkey see the genocide bill as a ploy by Sarkozy to secure Armenian support for his re-election when France goes to the polls in April. Up to 400,000 French people have Armenian roots. Many of their ancestors fled the massacres that began during World War I.
“Turkey is concerned that if Sarkozy is re-elected this will be the end of Turkey’s EU membership prospects, the final nail in the coffin,” said Amanda Paul, an expert on EU-Turkey relations at the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based think tank.
More form GlobalPost: Armenian genocide bill is adopted by French senate
Membership talks are already effectively frozen due to disputes over Cyprus. Turks are increasingly fed up with roadblocks to their EU ambitions and critical comments from Sarkozy and other EU politicians. With its economy thriving while its EU neighbours languish in recession and with an increasingly confident foreign policy role in the G20, Middle East and the Caucasus region, Turks are asking if they need the EU.
The French parliament’s decision is sure to further alienate Turkish opinion. The bill, which has been passed by both houses of parliament, does not specifically mention the mass killings of Armenians, but makes it a crime, punishable by a year in prison or a 45,000 euro fine, to “justify, contest or trivialize” any genocide or crime against humanity recognized by France.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced the law as “racist and discriminatory” on Tuesday and his government have threatened retaliatory measures once Sarkozy signs the bill into law.
More from GlobalPost: Turkey angry over France's genocide bill