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Turkey: Optimism On EU Membership Talks, Though Hurdles Remain

Turkey’s EU membership hopes received a moderate boost at yesterday’s informal EU foreign ministers meeting in Newport, Wales. Officials described as intense the discussion over whether to open accession talks with Turkey on 3 October, and how it should be done. But discord appeared to be milder than expected. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, representing the current EU presidency, said yesterday he is "reasonably confident" the deadline for talks will be met.

Newport, Wales; 2 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It was a case of "no news is good news" for Turkey at the EU meeting on 1 September.

Talks on Turkey's EU membership bid were debated, at times hotly. But the backlash feared by many did not materialize.

Instead, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was able to say after the meeting that the EU is still in agreement on offering Turkey eventual membership.

“The European Council in December last year decided that Turkey had sufficiently met the criteria for opening negotiations," Straw said. "The European Union has long held out the prospect of membership to Turkey and this was a historic decision which we recalled today. During the discussions [yesterday] no one questioned the conclusions which were reached in December last year and which were reiterated in June in respect of Turkey.”

EU officials said skeptical member states reiterated their long-standing concerns. France and Austria have both made it clear they prefer some form of privileged membership over an outright promise of full membership. Turkey, in turn, has sharply rejected anything less than equal status with other EU members.

The divided island of Cyprus would like Turkey to commit itself to a timetable leading to Ankara's full recognition of the island's Greek government.

Both concerns were aired again yesterday, but in a subdued fashion.

Jack Straw said two formal conditions remain before there can be full certainty that membership talks will start on 3 October. One is the wording of the formal EU decision to start negotiations. This is where a reference to “special partnership” could appear, although this now appears increasingly unlikely. The other is an EU declaration addressing Turkey’s recent signature of the so-called Ankara Protocol allowing for the free movement of goods with all EU member states. Turkey signed the protocol in July, but attached a declaration saying this does not amount to a recognition of Cyprus. Also, Turkey has said that irrespective of its signature, it will not allow Cypriot ships in its ports.
“It goes without saying that formal documents like the Ankara Protocol not only have to be signed and ratified, but they also have to be implemented." - Straw

Straw said yesterday Ankara must back down. However, he did not say that this must take before 3 October. “It goes without saying that formal documents like the Ankara Protocol not only have to be signed and ratified, but they also have to be implemented," he said. "And the first two stages are a necessary, but not a sufficient, prelude to the third and major stage, which is implementation.”

A draft copy of the EU declaration on the issue, seen by RFE/RL, says the EU “regrets” Turkey does not recognize Cyprus. It also says that as long as Turkey does not implement the Ankara agreement fully, negotiations on relevant parts of EU law cannot begin. However, the declaration does not rule out talks before Turkey fully implements the Ankara Protocol. Instead, it says the EU will “review” the issue in 2006.

Meanwhile, the EU expresses hope Turkey will work with the United Nations to resolve its dispute with Cyprus.

EU officials have told RFE/RL that Turkey’s nonrecognition of Cyprus does not legally bar the start of negotiations -- as long as Cyprus chooses not to raise the issue. One EU diplomat present at the meeting yesterday said there was growing acceptance among EU member states -- notably Cyprus -- that the EU’s interests regarding Turkey are best served within the framework of accession talks with the country.