Greece puts block on EU deal with Turks

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Greece's Socialist government rocked the European Union yesterday by rejecting an EU plan to form a customs union with Turkey, Greece's traditional rival. "We studied the issue assiduously and the position of the Greek government is negative," sai d Evangelos Venizelos, the government spokesman.

EU foreign ministers agreed in principle last Monday to a deal that envisaged forming a customs union with Turkey in return for a promise to start negotiations on admitting Cyprus to the Union. Athens initially appeared ready to approve the deal but later expressed reservations, based partly on the economic details of the plan and partly on the lack of a specific date for opening the talks on the accession of Cyprus, which Greece backs.

The EU initiative suggested that the talks start six months after the end of an inter-governmental conference on revising the Maastricht treaty that will open next year. However, EU governments have set no time limit to the conference, and Mr Venizelos added that the EU's plan said only that the talks "could start", rather than "will start", six months after the conference ends.

Greece's rejection of the plan dealt a blow to EU efforts to forge as close as possible a relationship with Turkey without admitting it as a full member. Greece's EU partners see the customs unions as a way to promote the prosperity and stability of Turkey, a strategically important ally and leading practitioner of secular politics in the Islamic world.

Greece announced its decision one day after the tense relationship between Athens and Ankara was demonstrated by a military incident over the Aegean Sea. A Turkish F-16 warplane crashed into the sea after Greek aircraft intercepted it for flying in an area considered by Athens to be Greek air space.

Mr Venizelos said the Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou, would write to his fellow EU heads of government to explain Greece's objections to the customs union plan. He said Greece would continue to block the plan unless the EU addressed these objections.

Mr Papandreou's government came under criticism from opposition parties this week for appearing to accept the EU plan. The conservative New Democracy party accused the government of "an incoherent and ill-defined foreign policy", and the nationalist Political Spring party said the EU's promises on Cyprus were too vague.

The ruling Pasok party cannot ignore such criticisms because it needs the support of some opposition members of parliament if it is to elect its candidate for the state presidency in April. The incumbent president, Constantine Karamanlis, completes his five-year term on 4 May.

Pasok holds 170 seats in the 300-seat parliament, but a candidate needs 180 votes to be elected. If no candidate receives 180 votes, fresh national elections must be held. The Socialists came to power in late 1993 and want to avoid early elections if possible.

In these circumstances, it made sense for Mr Papandreou to veto the Turkish customs union and thus prevent opposition parties from making political capital out of an issue that could have forced the government into an unwanted election campaign. However,the veto is embarrassing to the government's Minister for European Affairs, George Alexander Mangakis, who threatened to resign this week as a matter of honour if his cabinet colleagues rejected the EU plan.