Turkey's bid to join EU rescued from the brink of collapse - for now

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The Independent Online

EU membership talks with Turkey were rescued from the brink of collapse yesterday as a diplomatic stand-off underlined the scale of the obstacles confronting Ankara's ambitions to join the bloc.

After tense negotiations, Cyprus removed its threat to block discussions, clearing the way for Turkey to hold its first of 35 sets of substantive talks with the EU. However, diplomats admitted that the crisis has bought no more than a few months respite until the autumn when another, more serious, showdown looms.

Yesterday Cyprus, which had demanded full diplomatic recognition from Turkey, settled for a tough warning to Ankara that it must live up to international agreements. That was seen as an indication that, unless Turkey moves on admitting Cypriot vessels to its ports by the end of the year, membership negotiations will be suspended.

After yesterday's row was resolved, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gull, played down the scale of the problems. "The ups and downs and difficulties of this process are natural. What counts is to achieve a result," he said. The Austrian presidency said that the first chapter of detailed negotiations with Turkey - over science and technology issues - could now be completed.

But there was little disguising the depth of the difficulties that loom. In the autumn Turkey will be asked formally to admit Cypriot-registered ships and aircraft at Turkish ports and airports, a move foreseen under the protocol to the Ankara agreement.

But Turkey insists that this cannot happen without concessions to end the economic blockade of Turkish-dominated northern Cyprus. Earlier this week the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, repeated his determination to stick to that position.

Yesterday Ankara received a clear reminder that it must obey its obligations to extend its customs union to include Cyprus and nine other member states that joined the bloc in 2004.

At Cyprus's insistence, a document handed to Turkey said: "Failure [by Turkey] to implement its obligations in full will affect the overall progress in the negotiations."

The Cypriot Foreign Minister George Iacovou said: "Turkey must fulfil every single requirement. There is no way out." That position was echoed by the EU's enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, who said bluntly: "There is no linkage between the need for Turkey to respect its commitments in the relation to the Ankara protocol and the ending of the economic isolation of northern Cyprus."

Ursula Plassnik, Austria's Foreign Minister, added: "Positive signals have to be given that commitments will be met, particularly on the customs union, otherwise we will come up against problems sooner rather than later."

The approaching stand-off, which may lead to the suspension of membership negotiations with Ankara, has added to growing pessimism about the process, which is anyway likely to last a decade.

EU diplomats say that the reform process within Turkey has slowed since formal negotiations were started last October.

Some Turkish politicians have noted the negative stance of several EU member states towards the talks, and concluded that Ankara will never be able to join the bloc.

Cyprus has been split into an internationally recognised Greek Cypriot south and a Turkish-occupied north since a 1974 Turkish invasion sparked by a coup in favour of union with Greece. Ankara does not recognise the Greek Cypriot government in Nicosia, but supports the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state.

A UN peace plan to reunify the island was rejected by Greek Cypriots but supported by the Turkish north. At that point, the EU gave a political commitment to relax restrictions on the north. But since its admission to the EU in May 2004, Cyprus has taken advantage of its position as a member state to ratchet up the pressure on Turkey.