Cyprus dispute halts Turkey's EU talks

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Turkey's EU membership bid has been thrown into crisis after a dispute over Cyprus put at risk Ankara's negotiations with Brussels.

In a serious setback for Turkish ambitions to join the bloc, yesterday's efforts to resolve an impasse over Turkish curbs on Cypriot ships and aircraft by an end-of-the-year deadline were abandoned. That means that at least part of Turkey's EU membership negotiations will almost certainly be put in cold storage by European heads of government when they meet in Brussels next month.

Turkey has been told it must lift its trade restrictions on Cyprus - now part of the EU - within two weeks to avoid a possible shelving of the talks. Yesterday Erkki Tuomioja, the Foreign Minister of Finland which holds the EU presidency, said that circumstances "do not permit that an agreement" could be reached by the end of the year.

Olli Rehn, the European enlargement commissioner, sought to minimise the damage, arguing that Turkey's accession talks would not be frozen or halted. "But in some issues, they will slow down," he added.

The European Commission is aware that, were the talks to be ended, it might be impossible to revive them given the growing hostility of public opinion in Europe to Turkish membership. In Turkey popular sentiment is also turning against EU membership.

EU nations will now have to decide just how far to go in slowing the pace of negotiations, and on which policy areas to bar talks.

Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel expressed her impatience with the Turkish stance. "There cannot be a simple 'let's carry on as we are' in the negotiations with Turkey," she said.

Abdullah Gul, the Turkish Foreign Minister, appealed to the EU not to suspend talks, arguing: "Give us time to reform, give us time to change ourselves. It will be a long process - we are not going to become members overnight."

Turkey has refused to lift its embargo on Cypriot ships and planes until the EU honours a promise to ease the plight of Turkish Cypriots, in the north of Cyprus, who are internationally unrecognised.