Helsinki Summit: Turkey must now be wooed to accept EU membership

EU high commissioner flies to Ankara on a personal mission as Turkey frowns upon membership offer

EUROPE'S FOREIGN-policy supremo last night made a dramatic personal bid to rescue Turkey's prospects of achieving its long-sought prize of membership of the EU, after Ankara signalled it might reject the offer.

After a day of high diplomacy which began with a historic decision by EU leaders to finally recognise Turkey as a candidate for EU entry, and ended with an apparent rebuff from Ankara, Javier Solana, the EU's high representative, left Helsinki for the Turkish capital, in an attempt to persuade the premier, Bulent Ecevit, of Europe's good faith.

The move to embrace Turkey came as Europe took a big step towards a near- doubling of its membership. The heads of government invited five former communist states plus Malta to join formal talks on EU membership early next year.

Two years ago, to Ankara's fury, Turkey was snubbed from the list of official candidate countries because of its human-rights record and its disputes with Greece. Yesterday that position was redressed, paving the way for the eventual admission of the first predominantly Muslim nation to the EU.

But the Turkish government, apparently angered by the manner in which the offer was announced publicly, and unhappy at details of the offer, reacted "very negatively", one diplomat said. At the centre of the dispute was the wording, which Turkey interpreted as demanding concessions. But Turkish government sources were suggesting last night that there was room for a deal. That could come today if Mr Solana can persuade Mr Ecevit to fly to Helsinki for a lunch. Some diplomats said that the symbolism of a personal mission could be decisive.

Turkey has been knocking on the EU's door since 1963 but the question of its membership remains a highly complex diplomatic issue, not just because of historical enmity with Greece but because of the practical ramifications. The two countries are embroiled in territorial disputes over Aegean islands and Turkey's occupation of northern Cyprus, which it invaded in 1974.

Cyprus also wants EU membership, but its candidature is marred by the territorial row with Turkey.

In declaring that Turkey is at last a candidate, the EU leaders said it would consider Cyprus's application without it "being a precondition" that the territorial row with Turkey is first resolved.

Europe also wants the territorial dispute between Turkey and Greece to be settled in the international court in The Hague, "at the latest by the end of 2004".

One official argued: "This time there is the momentum, not just of the terrible earthquakes, but the fact that we have two very good ministers, Ismail Cem and George Papandreou, in place at the same time."

Nevertheless, the decision-making process was inevitably going to be complicated, requiring an agreement, as one diplomat put it "with Greece but without Turkey in the room, then putting that to the Turks". Once a candidate, Turkey would have to meet tough criteria on human rights, including its treatment of the Kurds and of the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, whom it has sentenced to death.

The failure over Turkey took the gloss off the decision by heads of government to approve six new candidates for EU membership and pave the way towards a near-doubling of its size.

Spurred on by the Kosovo crisis, Europe has pressed ahead with a much more radical enlargement than that envisaged just two years ago. In January or February next year the EU will begin formal talks with six new countries: Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania and Slovakia. Two of those countries, Bulgaria and Romania, had given assurances on environmental standards,nuclear power, economic reform and the running of orphanages, to get to yesterday's stage.

In addition, discussion continues with six other applicant countries - Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia - over how they can bring their law into line with that of the European Union.

The 15-member EU hopes to have reformed its internal structures sufficiently to be ready to admit the new applicants by the end of 2002. For their part, the timing of entry will be dependent of the success of new member states in meeting the necessary criteria, allowing "second-wave" candidates to overtake those who applied earlier.

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