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Turkey May Face Setback In EU Accession Talks

EU and Turkish flags flying in Istanbul (file photo) (epa) BRUSSELS, December 11, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- EU foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels today to discuss what some have called Turkey's disappointing progress toward meeting the bloc's demands it recognize member state Cyprus.

At stake is whether the bloc will decide to freeze at least a part of its ongoing accession talks with Turkey in retaliation for Ankara's slowness to accept Greek-Cypriot air or sea traffic.

The meeting today comes just ahead of the EU heads-of-state level summit in Brussels on December 14 and 15, which must try to resolve this difficult question.

The Ankara Protocol

European Union foreign ministers are expected to spend most of their meeting today debating how harshly the bloc should punish Turkey for not accepting Cypriot air and sea traffic.

Turkey has been given until this month to bring itself into line with the so-called Ankara Protocol, signed with the EU in 1961, which commits it to open its ports and airports to traffic from all EU member states.

One EU member state official told RFE/RL this morning it appears inevitable that the bloc will declare at least some of the 35 negotiating chapters of EU law out of bounds for Turkey.

Late last week, Turkey indicated it is prepared to accept a compromise, and allow Cypriot traffic partial access, but that appears not to be enough for the majority of EU member states.

At stake is the continuation of Turkey's EU accession talks, launched formally last year after a 40-year wait. Ankara, which faces elections next year, has indicated even a partial suspension might prompt it to walk away from the talks. Public opinion in Turkey is also cooling to the idea of EU membership.

EU member states are split among those like France, Germany, and Austria, whose own publics are inclined to reject the large and overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey, and countries led by Britain, Italy, and Poland that argue for Turkey's huge strategic significance and its potential contribution to the EU's global status.

Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn highlighted how important it is for the EU to come to a common position as he spoke to journalists today.

"I think it is not just Turkey that is the subject of the debate today, but it is also the credibility of the European Union," Asselborn said. "We have to show that the European Union is not just an amalgam of national interests [of individual EU member states]."

Sticking Point

Turkey has been given until this month to bring itself into line with the so-called Ankara Protocol, signed with the EU in 1961, which commits it to open its ports and airports to traffic from all EU member states, a group that now includes the internationally recognized Greek-Cypriot government in Nicosia. Citing the divided status of Cyprus and a trade blockade affecting the northern, Turkish-Cypriot -- and internationally unrecognized -- part of the island, Ankara has refused to yield.

EU sources say there is as yet no written confirmation of last week's reported Turkish offer to open one seaport and one airport to Greek Cypriot vessels and planes, respectively.

The government of Cyprus -- an EU member state since 2004 -- is said to be unreceptive to the offer.

The compromise would involve a reciprocal opening of a Turkish-Cypriot airport to EU traffic, which would be tantamount to breaching the bloc's current blockade and could be construed as a harbinger of an eventual recognition by the EU of the divided status of the island.

The EU's European Commission, which conducts the accession talks on behalf of the 25 EU member states, has recommended putting eight chapters out of bounds for Turkey. Cyprus -- backed by France, and Austria, both traditionally skeptical of Turkish membership -- wants to freeze a higher number.

Germany, though not known to be enthusiastic about Turkish EU accession, has yet to declare its position.

"What we've taken many years to build should not be destroyed in a few days," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said ahead of the meeting this morning.

Germany will be mindful of its role as the next holder of the rotating EU Presidency in January-June, 2007, which will impose on it an obligation to remain neutral on all bloc-wide debates.

Britain, Poland, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and Estonia are among Turkey's most ardent supporters, pushing for only three chapters to be frozen. They argue these should only include fields such as customs, transport, and trade -- issues directly affected by Turkey's refusal to implement the Ankara Protocol.

An EU official told RFE/RL today that the foreign ministers may prove unable to settle the debate and would then have to pass the matter over to the bloc's forthcoming summit in Brussels on December 14-15.

EU Expands Eastward

EU Expands Eastward

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