Turkey refuses consolation prize of seat at EU party

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The Independent Online
BASIL Fawlty might not look out of place if he showed up at Lancaster House in London on Thursday. That is when the leaders of 26 European nations will, at the invitation of Tony Blair, cram into a conference room surrounded by teams of officials, phalanxes of interpreters and armies of foreign ministers, to talk about pollution of the Danube, car-theft and drugs, in other words nothing much.

Logistical chaos has already been assured by Italy's insistence that all 26 speeches must be simultaneously interpreted into all 11 of the EU's official languages. That means hordes of interpreters piled into airless glass booths in a room that is already too small for the participants.

British taxpayers will be pounds 1.15m worse off by the time the leaders return home on Thursday evening, having spent three hours at a conference-opening ceremony and two hours lunching with the Queen.

Called to mark the launch of the European Conference, the event will bring together the 15 EU heads of government, and the prime ministers of the applicant countries - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Cyprus. The presidents of the European Commission and the European Parliament and the secretary-general of the Council of Ministers will also attend, bringing the number of participants to 30.

But like brides left waiting at the altar, Mr Blair and the Queen will be hosting an event where the guest of honour never appears. The chair marked "Ankara" will sit empty, the food prepared for Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz will go uneaten and no one will mention Turkey.

The European Conference was devised as a permanent forum where all EU aspirants could review progress with existing members of the club. Then last December, Turkey, banging on the EU's doors since 1963, was sidelined as 11 others were nominated for admission.

Quick thinkers at the Foreign Office came up with a consolation prize: an invitation to the launch of the European Conference. But if Turkey was on the guest list, insisted the Germans, then there would be strictly no mention of EU enlargement. Suddenly the conference was about crime, drugs, the environment, anything in fact, except enlargement.

Now, the scorned Turks are not coming and worse, they are daring to mention the war. "Lebensraum" thundered the Mr Yilmaz in an interview with the Financial Times last Friday in which he compared the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, to Hitler. "The Germans continue the same strategy as before. They believe in Lebensraum ... their final goal is to divide Europe between Bulgaria and Turkey".

Turkey's very public snub removes any raison d'etre the meeting might have had. "It's a joke, an expensive photo-call" said an EU diplomat. "We have heard a lot about royal protocol for the lunch but we still don't know what they really want to achieve," said one East European country official. Critics point out that the ceremony to launch the enlargement negotiations takes place in three weeks time anyway and a very good talking shop already exists in the 38-nation Council of Europe.

Mr Blair's hopes that the event would help make the Turks feel included in the "European family" have already back-fired. Indeed, television footage of the "chosen" ones trooping in to see the Queen could it is feared, damage strained relations with Turkey to the point of no repair.