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Austria Throws EU Meeting Over Turkey Into Crisis

Prague, 3 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- As EU foreign ministers met in Luxembourg today, there was no certainty that they would be able to agree as planned to offer to start accession talks with Ankara.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw put things this way in remarks to journalists yesterday after a difficult day of preparatory negotiations.

"On the question of whether negotiations [with Turkey] are able to start," Straw said. "It is a matter of 'if' -- if we are able to reach agreement in these discussions with Austria."

Britain holds the rotating EU Presidency.

An EU announcement today that Ankara can formally begin accession talks with the bloc had been widely expected since all 25 EU governments agreed in December that they would open negotiations with Turkey.

But those expectations have been shaken by Austria's insistence that Turkey be offered something less than full membership.

Vienna's accord is necessary because all the EU member states must agree on a negotiating framework document before accession talks can start.

Straw sought to apply last-minute public pressure to Vienna as he spoke to reporters yesterday. He said Austria alone among the 25 EU member states does not want accession talks to lead to full membership for Ankara.

"During yesterday's discussions, I was very struck by the strength of support for Turkey's application and for Turkey's role in Europe from 24 [EU] member states," Straw said. "[It was] amongst the most positive discussions that I've taken part in during my period of involvement with the European Union."

But, so far, the Austrian government is showing no signs of backing down.

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik sounded a defiant note as she also spoke to reporters yesterday.
Some observers believe that Vienna could give up its resistance regarding Ankara in exchange for assurances the way will be opened for Croatia's accession.

"Every country, every once in a while, is in a situation of difficulty and this is not what we are afraid of," Plassnik said. "Isolation and pressure is never going to work in politics. It's not going to work inside the European Union, certainly not. The union should have a different and must have a different style."

Still, there is widespread speculation among EU observers that Vienna could be persuaded to change its position. Vienna is very interested in seeing the EU one day admit Croatia, a country with which Austria has close historical ties.

Some observers believe that Vienna could give up its resistance regarding Ankara in exchange for assurances the way will be opened for Croatia's accession.

Plassnik refused to speak with the press about any such link yesterday. But she clearly championed Croatia's cause.

"The time is ripe and the conditions fulfilled for starting negotiations with Croatia, but this is not linked to anything else," Plassnik said. "It is not our doing that these two issues appear on the radar and on the 'to-do list' of the British Presidency now."

EU negotiations with Croatia have been on hold since March after the EU accused Zagreb of not cooperating with the UN tribunal in The Hague over catching Ante Gotovina, former Croatian general indicted for war crimes.

But those negotiations could resume if the court in The Hague were to signal Croatia's cooperation is improving. The chief prosecutor for the tribunal, Carla Del Ponte, is due to give an assessment of Croatia's cooperation at the meeting of the EU foreign ministers today.

Apart from the crisis over Turkey, Uzbekistan is also on the agenda at today's EU meeting.

EU ambassadors said on 29 September that the foreign ministers will announce today the imposition of some sanctions on Tashkent. The sanctions reflect the EU's unhappiness with the Uzbek government's refusal to allow an independent, international investigation into the May violence in Andijon.

The measures will include an arms embargo, preparations for a visa ban on top officials, aid cuts, and the suspension of parts of the EU-Uzbek Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.

As part of the sanctions, the EU is expected to announce it will cut aid to Uzbekistan in 2006. Instead of 11.25 million euros ($13.53 million), the country will receive 9.25 million euros.

See also:

"Turkey: Optimism On EU Membership Talks, Though Hurdles Remain"

"Turkey: Leaders Present Brave Face On EU Crisis, But Concerns Run High"