After heated discussion, the deputies did not ratify the extension of an EU-Turkey customs treaty signed by Ankara on 29 July to the 10 new EU member states.
In delaying the ratification of the updated customs accord, the deputies were reacting to Turkey’s insistence that the accord does not amount to recognising Cyprus.
The deputies also approved a declaration demanding Turkey acknowledge the killings of Armenians between 1915 and 1918 as “genocide” before it can join the EU.
The EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn told the parliament he understands the concerns.
"The recognition of all member states is a necessary component of the accession process. Accordingly, the [European] Union underlines the importance of the normalization of relations between Turkey and all EU member states as soon as possible," Rehn said.
But, significantly, he was quoting from a declaration agreed last week by EU member states, including Cyprus, allowing Turkey to recognise Cyprus later along the way once the accession process -- meaning the talks -- has started.
The parliament does not, however, have the power to stop Turkey from starting accession talks on 3 October if EU member states so decide. But today's decisions could strengthen the hand of those EU member states still resisting agreement on a text laying out the ground rules for talks. That text also needs to be approved by 3 October.
The parliament’s moves are sure to anger Turkey. Turkish officials today reiterated Ankara may shun the talk should it consider the terms offered by the EU unacceptable.
Today’s debate in parliament pitted those deputies who insist that Turkey recognize Cyprus before accession talks with the EU against those deputies who agree recognition is necessary but that it can come anytime during the accession talks period. That period could last as long as 10 years, giving time for tensions over the issue to ease.
Douglas Alexander, a junior British minister for Europe, speaking for the current EU presidency, was one of those arguing for resolving the thorny Cyprus question later.
He sought to calm tempers even before the debate began by saying that Turkish EU membership is not imminent.
“Turkey will not accede to the union imminently. Thirty-five chapters must be opened and closed; further reforms will be required, and some member states have already committed to referenda on Turkey’s eventual accession. The Turkey that will eventually join the European Union will frankly be a different Turkey from the one we see today. It may also be a rather different European Union that it, in turn, joins,” Alexander said.
But Alexander’s exhortation had little effect.
The leader of the parliament’s largest, conservative faction, Hans-Georg Poettering, one of those insisting Ankara recognize Nicosia before accession talks, said deputies in his faction had a free hand to vote individually. That effectively doomed the ratification of the renewed customs accord.
The deputies’ decision runs counter to the position of the EU’s executive arm. The EU Commission is content to let the full recognition of Cyprus wait, but does insist Turkey open its sea and airports to Cypriot ships and planes immediately. This is something Turkey also refuses to do.
Amid the heated debate over Cyprus, some deputies also expressed unhappiness that Turkey could conceivably enter the EU ahead of Croatia. The EU has yet to set a date for starting accession talks with Croatia, in part over Zagreb’s failure to deliver suspected war criminal Ante Gotovina to The Hague tribunal.
Poettering spoke for many, when he called on the EU’s British presidency to no longer delay opening talks with Croatia over the Gotovina case.
“I wish to pass on a concern to the president of the [EU]Council [of Ministers], and I speak in the hope that he will pay to it the required attention. I call upon the British government to proceed on the basis of the same rules. We know what the human rights situation in Turkey is like, and how things are in Croatia. You refuse Croatia the start of accession talks because this general cannot be brought to justice, which is something the government clearly is not able to do, while nearly all of us close our eyes to Turkey and apply to it a different yardstick,” Poettering said.
Poettering also said talks with Turkey could lead to a “close partnership,” rather than full membership. This is anathema to Turkey, but is a demand supported by Austria which heads resistance among EU member states.
He said deadlines should be imposed to secure human rights improvements in Turkey, which, if not met should trigger a suspension of talks.
Poettering drew a withering response from Martin Schulz, the leader of the socialist group, the second largest faction.
“Listening to Mr. Poettering attentively, one can only really come to one conclusion. It would be better if you [Poettering] said ‘We do not want Turkey as a full member of the European Union.’ That is the message of you speech, Mr. Poettering -- and say it then!” Schulz said.
Schulz accused the conservatives of double standards.
“When the European Union is not ready to accept Turkey, then it won’t also be able to receive Croatia. You [that is, Poettering] must clearly say what the message of your policies is -- Turkey is not wanted [because] it is far away and Islamic, [while] Croatia is Catholic, conservative and near and therefore wanted,” Schulz said.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, representing the Greens, caused an uproar by saying some of those speaking against Turkey were “riding a wave of racism.”
EU ambassadors will meet in Brussels tomorrow to hammer out an 11th hour deal before foreign ministers meet the expectant Turkish delegation in Luxembourg on 3 October.