Britain warns of Islamic backlash if EU snubs Turkey

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The Independent Online

The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, warned in a hard-hitting speech that snubbing Ankara's hopes would give ammunition to Islamic extremists, while welcoming it into the EU would help avert a "clash of civilisations" between the Muslim world and the West. Failure to start EU membership negotiations on 3 October as scheduled could lead Europe into a "crisis on our own doorstep," Mr Straw said.

Washington stepped up the pressure on the Europeans when a senior State Department official said, after talks in Brussels, that it was in the interests of the EU, Turkey and the US that the membership talks go ahead.

Most diplomats still expect EU membership talks - which could last a decade - to begin on 3 October, but the next few weeks will be fraught with diplomatic brinkmanship.

Behind the scenes, tensions are running high and Cyprus said yesterday it expected to see an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers called before the talks with Turkey are due to start. Britain, which holds the EU presidency, hopes to avoid the need for a meeting.

Since EU member states agreed last year to open talks with Turkey, the political climate in Europe has changed following "no" votes in referendums in France and the Netherlands on the proposed constitution. The German opposition leader Angela Merkel is against full EU membership for Turkey - as are all the main political parties in Austria - and last month the French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, said it was "inconceivable" that talks could start without Turkey recognising one of its 25 member states.

Turkey has met the formal conditions for starting the membership talks, which include promising to extend a customs union to all EU member states. But Ankara has complicated its prospects by issuing a declaration highlighting the fact that it does not recognise Cyprus, which joined the EU last May. That appeared to call into question whether Cypriot ships or planes would be allowed into Turkish ports and airports, despite Turkey's pledge to extend the customs union.

On Wednesday, EU ambassadors failed to agree the text of a counter-statement designed to underscore Cyprus's rights of access to Turkish ports. All 25 EU countries also have to agree another text setting out a negotiating mandate before the talks can begin. Any additional conditions placed on Turkey could prompt it to walk away from the talks.

The US urged the EU yesterday to embrace Turkey. Kurt Volker, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state, said he was "encouraged by the state of play though there is work to be done. It is in the EU's interests, in Turkey's interests and in our interests to see accession talks beginning but, clearly, this is a decision for the EU to take forward."

The US has long backed Turkey's EU membership bid, though declarations backing Turkey by President George Bush have been interpreted in some countries as being counter-productive interference.