"Thanks to its reform process, Turkey is on the right path," Schroeder told a press conference in Ankara on Monday after talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Once reforms are implemented and have taken hold in Turkish society, Ankara's chances of getting a favourable report from the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, to begin accession talks will increase, he added. 

"There are good chances to see that at the end of the year," said Schroeder, the first head of German government to officially visit Turkey in 11 years. 

Partnership

Turkey signed its first economic partnership with the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the EU, in 1963 and has been a formal candidate for EU membership since 1999. But it is the only county which has so far failed to enter into membership talks with the bloc. 

EU leaders will decide in December whether the mainly Muslim
country has made sufficient progress in meeting the Copenhagen criteria, a set of political and economic standards, which include respect for democratic rule and human rights, to sit down at the negotiating table. 

Ankara argues that it has fulfilled the majority of the political criteria, but Brussels has pointed to some shortfalls concerning judicial independence, fundamental freedoms, the political influence of the military and the rights of its sizeable Kurdish minority. 

"We are awaiting with great confidence a positive decision in
December 2004 on our negotiation process," Erdogan said, adding that his government was determined to press ahead with the implementation of reforms. 

Support

Erdogan: "We are awaiting with
great confidence"

Schroeder, for his part, pledged his government's unwavering
support providing Turkey did its homework. 

"Turkey can always count on Germany for support...Our vote will be for the start of accession negotiations in a shortest time if Turkey has fulfilled all the criteria," the German leader said. 

His stance was in sharp contrast to that of Angela Merkel, the leader of the main Christian Democratic Union opposition party in Germany, who proposed a "special partnership" with Turkey, rather than full membership, during a visit there last week. 

Erdogan termed her proposal "out of the question". 

Turkey, a predominantly Muslim nation with a population of
almost 70 million and a NATO member, would be the most populous country in the EU after Germany if admitted to the bloc today. UN forecasts indicate that it would overtake Germany within a few years. 

Schroeder also lauded Turkey on its efforts to help resolve the long-standing division of Cyprus, a stumbling block in the EU
enlargement process, and said Ankara's contribution would have a positive influence on the EU decision in December 2004.