EU warns Turkey to let Cyprus use ports if it wants to join

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The Independent Online

Turkey has been given a stark warning that time is running out for it to salvage talks on its membership of the EU by opening its ports to Cypriot planes and ships.

Amid frantic diplomatic efforts, the EU's enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, warned of a "last window of opportunity on the Cyprus issue in the coming weeks or months for a very long time, perhaps for years".

Yesterday, EU officials sought to encourage Turkey to engage in the diplomacy, and tried to calm anger in Ankara at last week's French parliamentary vote to criminalise those who deny the Armenian genocide.

Mr Rehn met the Turkish Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, in Luxembourg as the countdown began to a year-end deadline for Turkey to end its embargo on vessels from Cyprus which joined the EU in 2004.

Mr Rehn has already warned that failure to do so would lead to a "train crash", with Turkey's membership talks are put on ice. Ankara is holding out, saying it will only relent if the economic blockade is lifted in Turkish northern Cyprus.

On 8 November, the European Commission will publish a report on Turkey's progress towards membership and is likely to be critical of the slow pace of reform.

Diplomats said yesterday's talks with Mr Gul had "a good atmosphere, a good discussion but no breakthrough".

Finland, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, has launched a last diplomatic push to reduce restrictions on Turkish-run northern Cyprus if Turkey, in turn, opens its ports to Greek Cypriots.

Mr Gul said he "will constructively support the Finnish presidency's proposal", which is thought to propose opening the northern Cyprus seaport of Famagusta to free trade with the EU. In return, the Turkish side should give control of the abandoned town of Varosha to the Greek Cypriots.

But the Turkish side is resisting any concession over Varosha, arguing it cannot do so outside of UN talks on the future of Cyprus. It is also calling for direct flights to be started to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus which is not internationally recognised.

In 2004, Greek Cypriots voted against a UN-backed plan aimed at reuniting the country on the eve of its entry into the EU. Turkish Cypriots approved the plan.

Mr Rehn repeated that the Cyprus customs issue could prove to be the breaking point in Turkey's membership talks which began in October 2005.

He said there were "tensions in EU-Turkey relations" but the problems could not be resolved "by dramatising them". He said: "Instead, we have to work prudently and with full determination in order to find solutions. Both communities and all parties should now show political will."

The talks were also aimed at soothing Turkey after French lawmakers approved legislation that would criminalise denying that First World War killings of Armenians was genocide. The legislation still needs approval from the French Senate and president. Turkey does not accept the label of genocide, saying the Armenians were killed in a partisan war.