Deal on Turkish membership of EU saved by compromise over Cyprus

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The European Union narrowly averted a disastrous collapse yesterday of its deal to start membership talks with Turkey through a hard-fought compromise over Cyprus.

The European Union narrowly averted a disastrous collapse yesterday of its deal to start membership talks with Turkey through a hard-fought compromise over Cyprus.

Although Ankara fought a high-profile battle against tough conditions on membership talks, and suggestions that it might ultimately qualify for second-class membership, Cyprus was to prove the issue that nearly scuttled the talks. At one point during the charged discussions, the Turkish delegation was on the verge of walking out and abandoning its 41-year bid for membership.

And even at the final meeting of the day, at which all sides welcomed the deal, there was an ill-tempered exchange between the Turkish premier, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Cypriot President, Tassos Papadopoulos. Turkey's hand was weak because the Greek-controlled half of the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus joined the EU on 1 May this year, giving it a seat at the table and a veto over Turkey's membership terms.

Mr Papadopoulos had called for full recognition of his country, but settled for the extension of a customs union, contained in the so-called Ankara agreement, to the new member states that joined the EU in May ­ including Cyprus. Though this fell short of full diplomatic recognition of the divided island, it was nonetheless difficult for Ankara to stomach.

When Mr Erdogan saw the first draft of the text early yesterday morning his reaction was dusty. Some Turkish diplomats urged him to return home, though the Turkish premier, who has staked his political credibility on the bid for EU membership, promised to stay and fight.

Discussions with Jan Peter Balkenende, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, which holds the EU presidency, were difficult. Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, said: "When the Turks got the proposal they reacted very negatively to say the least." After early morning discussions, one Turkish diplomat quoted Mr Erdogan as telling Mr Balkenende: "You are choosing 600,000 Greeks [Cypriots] over 70 million Turks, and I cannot explain this to my people."

He had been offered a precise starting date for membership talks ­ on 3 October next year ­ but he was also asked to initial an extension of the Ankara accord. The terms of the text also implied that Ankara was being told, or expected, to do this rather than making the gesture of its own accord.

By morning, Mr Erdogan had come up with a counter-formulation under which he would volunteer to resolve the issue before 3 October. As one diplomat put it, the morning "see-sawed backward and forward on whether it was the European Council [where heads of government meet] told Turkey or whether Turkey told the European Council".

Tony Blair was involved in nearly all the negotiations between clusters of leaders, including Jacques Chirac, the French President, Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, Mr Erdogan and Mr Balkenende. One diplomat said: "The Turks did not quite believe that the EU was negotiating in good faith and Blair helped to persuade them of that." At one point, when the Cypriots managed to toughen up the text, the Turks threatened to walk out. But eventually a form of words was drafted that "welcomed the declaration of Turkey" that it was ready to sign the deal before starting membership talks. The wording does not refer either to Cyprus or to the 10 new member states."

"The key," said one diplomat, "was that it was their decision, it was not 'required' of them, not 'imposed'." Even then there was one final spat at the last session of the day. As Mr Ahern put it: "When Erdogan stood up he put in the bitter pill that they do not recognise Cyprus." Mr Papadopoulos hit back with a fiery statement.

That row was not enough to prevent celebrations among the leaders with a glass of champagne ­ though Mr Erdogan, who neither drinks nor smokes, stayed clear of the alcohol. But it illustrated how the negotiations upon which the EU is about to embark with Turkey will be neither swift nor smooth.

THE QUIET CRISIS

* Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, right, after a Greek-engineered coup.

* The capital, Nicosia, is Europe's last divided city, split by a barbed-wire buffer zone.

* The Greek south is an EU member, the Turkish north is recognised only by Ankara.

* It is the UN's longest peace-keeping mission.

* The UN proposes a two-state federation with a revolving presidency.

* Turkish Cypriots voted in favour of a UN plan to reunify in March but their Greek counterparts rejected it.

* The Greek-Cypriot government is demanding full recognition from Ankara.

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