EU warns Turkey to back down on Cyprus

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Turkey was criticised for human rights failings and corruption yesterday and told to make concessions over Cyprus if it wants to avert a breakdown of EU membership talks next month.

A report from the European Commission on Turkey's progress listed a host of serious gaps in internal reform, and highlighted Ankara's failure to honour a promise to open its ports to Cypriot shipping.

In a thinly veiled warning, the Commission said if there was no further progress on Cyprus, it would make "relevant recommendations" to EU leaders before their summit in December. That is code for the suspension of at least some parts of the EU membership negotiations which began in October 2005.

The membership application of a large, mainly poor and predominantly Muslim country has always been controversial. France's Foreign Minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, suggested the EU should "rethink its timetable" for membership talks with Turkey if Ankara fails to act over Cyprus by the end of the year.

The stakes are high because support for Turkish membership of the EU is falling within the bloc and among Turkey's increasingly disenchanted electorate. Supporters of Ankara's membership application fear a backlash against Europe in Turkey if negotiations are put on hold next month.

Yesterday's progress report criticised Ankara for corruption, restricting freedom of expression, failing to complete reforms of the judiciary and military, the continuing use of torture and ill-treatment, and lack of rights for women and minorities.

The document highlighted article 301 of the Turkish constitution, which has been used to prosecute writers and intellectuals including the Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk - though the charges were later dropped.

The European enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, who produced the report, said: "Corruption remains widespread and anti-corruption authorities and policies are still weak".

Prison conditions were criticised and the report said "cases of torture and ill-treatment are still being reported, in particular outside detention centres". There were "widespread reports of excessive and arbitrary use of force by the security forces, even against ambulances" in the south-east.

The country's record on rights for women, Kurds, trade unions and Roma communities was also taken to task. Although the failings in these areas are serious, diplomats know that Turkey probably has a decade to resolve them because its path towards the EU is destined to be slow. But the problems over Cyprus threaten to derail the talks next month. Turkey has refused to fulfil a pledge to open ports to ships from Cyprus, which is now part of the EU. It wants a reciprocal gesture from Brussels which would lift the economic blockade on northern Cyprus, which is not internationally recognised. Finland, which holds the EU presidency, wants to open some Turkish ports to shipping from Cyprus but also allow goods from Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus to be exported to from the port of Famagusta under EU supervision. As a quid pro quo, the Greek Cypriots would be able to rebuild the abandoned resort of Varosha.

Although talks on this plan have stalled, diplomats still hope for some progress before next month's summit. Failing that, at least some of Turkey's membership talks will be suspended and these are likely to include all areas related to Cyprus such as transport, free movement of goods and customs.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, offered no sign of compromise yesterday. "We have said, 'Don't ever expect us to open our ports and airports until the isolation of the Turkish Cypriot state is lifted'. Turkish Cypriots and Turkey have fulfilled their responsibility," he said.