Cook's dash to Turkey fails to heal EU rift

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The Independent Online
HOPES of a quick thaw in Turkey's relations with the European Union were dashed last night as Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, failed to persuade Ankara to attend the annual EU/Turkey Association Council scheduled for Brussels next Monday.

By travelling as far as Ankara and back inside a single day, Mr Cook had hoped to convince Turkey of Britain's and Europe's anxiety to make a new start in relations, after the rupture last December in Luxembourg, when EU leaders refused to start accession negotiations - making clear there was no chance of Turkey entering the EU in the foreseeable future.

The idea had been that the association council take place on the basis of an agreed new EU strategy document which would, in the words of British officials, "prepare Turkey for accession by bringing it closer to Europe in every field". But Turkey's Prime Minister, Mesut Yilmaz, and Ismail Cem, the Foreign Minister, left their visitor in no doubt that Turkey would only attend on its terms.

Yes, it had been a "useful" meeting. Ankara wanted the association council to be held, and preferably during the UK Presidency of the EU which ends on 30 June. But, warned Mr Cem, "only if everything goes as we want. Otherwise it can be held at a later date. We don't want it at any cost, without all the details being settled first."

The stumbling blocks are two. One is Turkey's lingering sense of hurt at what it sees as EU discrimination in the refusal to set a date for accession, which Ankara would like to see reversed at the forthcoming EU Council in Cardiff. But there is scant chance of that.

The other problem, inevitably, is Greece, which is blocking the release of 375m Ecu (pounds 250m) due to Turkey under its 1995 customs union with the EU, and would presumably veto any further promise of money. The Greek Foreign Minister, Theodoros Pangalos, chose the moment of Mr Cook's visit to reaffirm that veto, citing Athens' territorial disputes with Ankara in the Aegean.

Mr Pangalos also insisted that the association council discuss political as well as economic issues. Turkey is happy with the draft as it stands, which mainly expands the customs union into the fields of services and agriculture. But Greece wants human rights and other political topics to feature as well. That, say the Turks, must wait until the EU's "discrimination" is ended.

Mr Cook was stoical about the likely delay in the council meeting. "I'm not disappointed," he said. He will now make a fresh, but probably fruitless, effort to change Athens' mind.

Turkey has hardened its line on Cyprus, backing the insistence of Rauf Denktash, President of the Turkish Cypriot north of the island, that his statelet must be recognised before any involvement in the talks for Cyprus to accede to the EU.

Mr Cook paid a surprise visit in hospital to the leading Turkish human rights campaigner Akin Birdal, who was shot last week. No one has been arrested for the crime. Earlier the Foreign Secretary expressed his dismay at this "ghastly" crime.