Turkey agrees to EU customs union

After days of wrangling over the wording of a declaration from Ankara, diplomats finally signed an accord designed to pave the way for the start of formal EU membership talks for Turkey on 3 October.

However the wording of the Turkish statement on Cyprus, issued at the same time as it signed the customs deal, was being analysed last night. The carefully worded text stuck to established Turkish policy on Cyprus leaving key issues opaque. Whether the Turks have done enough to clear their path towards negotiations in October may not become clear until the end of next month when EU ambassadors discuss the text.

Extending Ankara's customs union to all EU countries, including Cyprus, is a precondition of Turkey starting talks, though formal recognition of the Greek Cypriot government is not.

However some diplomats fear that a refusal to recognise Cyprus, which joined the EU last year, would suggest that the customs union would not be applied to it, thereby undermining the purpose of the deal.

The Cypriot government in Nicosia said it "deeply regretted" Turkey's declaration that it would not recognise the government of an EU member. It said it would examine whether the Turkish statement called into question the validity of the customs union.

Crucially, the Turkish declaration skirted around one central issue, making no direct mention as to whether it will allow Cypriot ships or planes to enter its waters or airspace.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded following an abortive coup by supporters of union with Greece. A breakaway Turkish Cypriot state established in north Cyprus is only recognised by Ankara.

The British presidency welcomed the signature of the deal and added member states "will examine the terms of the Turkish declaration with a view to agreeing any further EU response".

A British official said the UK had insisted that the Turkish statement "must not call into question whether Turkey will implement the protocol [extending the customs union]".

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