EU foreign ministers, meeting in an exclusive holiday resort near the town of Newport in south Wales, have paved the way for important decisions on the membership aspirations of Turkey, Croatia, as well as other Balkan hopefuls. The twice-yearly informal discussion which traditionally takes place in a relaxed setting, appeared to signal that the EU is emerging from a period when enthusiasm for enlargement was flagging in the wake of the failed constitutional referenda. The ministers also indicated they are preparing to get tough on Iran's resurgent nuclear ambitions. Russia, meanwhile, remains an issue on which most new member states do not see eye-to-eye with their older counterparts in the EU.
Newport, Wales; 3 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Many observers feared before the Newport meeting that enlargement could further cede ground to a mood of isolationism that has followed the constitutional debacle earlier in the spring.
Instead, the leading membership contenders Turkey and Croatia emerged unscathed from the two days of discussion. Both could even be said to have consolidated their positions, as skeptics were surprisingly muted in their objections.
The formula used by several top EU representatives to refer to Turkey's prospects of opening accession talks on 3 October was that they can predict it with "reasonable confidence." The words were used by the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on 1 Sepember and again by the enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn yesterday.
Rehn told journalists no member state had spoken to oppose launching talks on 3 October.
"I have not heard any member state questioning the start of the negotiations on 3 October with Turkey -- on the condition that Turkey also meets the commitments to the letter which have been set to Turkey in the December [2004 EU summit] conclusions," Rehn said.
Given Turkey's relatively easy ride, EU officials were flummoxed to learn of comments made by the Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul to the British weekly "The Economist," in which Gul said Turkey would "walk away for good" from the EU if it were offered anything short of full membership.
Commissioner Rehn was at great pains yesterday to explain that the EU offer of full membership has not changed. He said the EU last December indeed noted that membership cannot be guaranteed, but that was because of the unavoidably "open-ended" nature of accession talks.
Rehn said Turkey should view exhortations by France, Austria and others to offer it a "privileged partnership" as an incentive to work harder.
"It is fair to say, realistically, that the question of [a] privileged partnership will be part of the overall political debate in Europe in the coming months and years, and if I were a Turk I would see it as a positive incentive in the sense that if Turkey is making real progress in achieving the objectives of accession then there is much less pressure to discuss seriously about any other alternatives," Rehn said.
Two formal hurdles remain for Turkey. One is the agreement by EU member states of a "negotiating mandate" prior to 3 October. A special foreign ministers' meeting is likely to be convened later this month for this purpose.
The other is an EU statement currently in the pipeline addressing Turkey's refusal to treat Cyprus on a par with other EU member states. Turkey recently extended its customs union with the EU to the new member states, but appended a declaration to the decision stating it did not mean recognising the Greek government of Cyprus. As a result, Turkey does not admit Cypriot ships to its port -- something the EU says is in clear violation of the customs accord and cannot be tolerated.
The other membership hopeful, Croatia, also saw some long-awaited encouragement. Zagreb's ambitions have been on hold since the spring when the EU decided accession talks cannot begin as long as war crimes suspect Ante Gotovina is not delivered to the international tribunal in The Hague. At Newport, EU officials dropped heavy hints a special working group could decide later this month to acquiesce that the matter is beyond Croatia's control.
Serbia also received a boost when Olli Rehn said yesterday the EU is likely to begin Stabilisation and Association Agreement talks with Belgrade soon.
The biggest loser at the talks was Iran. The EU is clearly running out of patience after years of ultimately futile attempts to get Iran to give up uranium enrichment in return for economic and political concessions.
Jack Straw said on 1 September Tehran's decision last month to resume uranium conversion -- an activity related to uranium enrichment -- was a challenge the EU can not accept. He said Iran must instead "build confidence" in the rest of the world that it is not seeking to develop a nuclear weapon.
"The key to resolving this issue is for Iran to take confidence-building steps requested of it in those successive [IAEA] Board resolutions. We agreed that Iran's recent actions undermined the confidence which was being built and was a challenge to the European Union. And it's a situation that we felt we could not accept," Straw said.
EU officials at Newport said there was little if any doubt among member states that Iran is ultimately seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
Tehran now has until 19 September, when the IAEA board meets again, to reconsider. If it does not end uranium conversion, the EU is likely to support US moves to refer the issue to the UN Security Council.
However, EU member states are said to be overwhelmingly skeptical about the efficacy of possible sanctions given Iran's oil reserves and good ties with Russia and China.
Russia itself came under fierce criticism at the meeting from all its immediate EU neighbours -- Poland, the three Baltic states and Finland. Ministers from the five criticised rising xenophobia, anti-Semitism, extremism, persecution of Fenno-Ugric minorities, imperialist nostalgia and a widening gap with European values.
Their calls for a united, tougher EU front against Moscow went largely unheeded, however. Their cause received explicit support only from Germany's Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, while most other governments are known to prefer not antagonising Russia.