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EU commission urges suspension of Turkish entry talks

The European Union's executive body urged a suspension of accession talks with Turkey because of its embargo on EU member state Cyprus, an unprecedented step that may kill the Turkish entry bid.

The European Commission recommended freezing about a quarter of the accession program to punish Turkey for barring ships and planes from Greek-speaking Cyprus. The proposal would prevent entry negotiations on issues including trade, transport and agriculture. Turkey must face “consequences” for its defiance, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said at a news conference in Brussels yesterday. Foreign ministers from the EU's 25 nations, which have the final say over negotiations with aspiring members, will discuss the recommendation on December 11. EU anger is growing after Turkey backtracked on a pledge to end the curbs on Cyprus in return for winning the go-ahead to start accession negotiations 13 months ago. The Turkish government now says this step requires the bloc to allow trade with a part of Cyprus occupied by Turkey for three decades. The commission's recommendation reflects broader anxieties about admitting Turkey, which would be the first Muslim member and one of the bloc's most populous nations. The Turkish embargo is a lightning rod for criticism that extends to demands for more Turkish media and religious freedoms.

The EU, which has had five expansions since being created by six nations half a century ago and will enlarge for a sixth time when Bulgaria and Romania join in January, has never suspended parts of an aspiring member's entry program, Rehn's office says. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the recommendation would make membership a more distant prospect and Turkey would press ahead with its efforts to gain entry. His government is relying on the accession talks to help boost economic growth in the nation of 72 million people, where per- capita wealth is about a fourth of the EU average. The entry process “could have proceeded at a faster pace but now it will be slower,” Erdogan said in televised remarks in Ankara after returning from a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Riga, Latvia. “The path is the same, our path to the EU.” Both sides have completed one of 35 regulatory “chapters” due to be covered by the negotiations over the coming decade, sealing an accord on Turkish research laws in June. Each EU nation has veto power over the opening and closing of individual chapters. The commission recommended the suspension of eight chapters on issues that also include customs, fisheries, financial services, other services and external relations. The commission also proposed that no chapter be completed before Turkey lifts the curbs against Cyprus.

Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen of Finland, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, called the commission's recommendation “solid.” “Turkey has not fulfilled its obligations,” Vanhanen said in an e-mailed statement from Helsinki. Entry negotiations “should be normalized when the conditions are met.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Jacques Chirac also praised the proposal. Merkel, speaking to reporters in Riga, said the recommendation sends a “strong signal” to Turkey and Chirac, according to a French government official, told Erdogan in Riga that the EU would respect the proposal. Turkey has occupied northern Cyprus since a 1974 invasion after a coup by Greek Cypriot supporters of union with Greece. Turkey, which refuses to recognize the Mediterranean island republic, has 30,000 soldiers in the occupied region. The EU says Turkey has a legal obligation to open its ports to Cyprus while working toward a political settlement on the island. “The European Union is a community of law,” Rehn said. “Failure to meet legal obligations cannot remain without consequences.” The commission recommendation will slow Turkey's accession process while avoiding a “train crash,” Rehn said. He pressed the Turkish government to meet the EU's demands over Cyprus before the December 11 foreign ministers' meeting, saying “Turkey can still score a golden goal.” Turkey's currency and stocks gained yesterday as investors concluded the country would avoid a total breakdown in the membership process. The lira rose as much as 1.4% against the dollar to 1.4555, posting the biggest gain against the US currency among 71 currencies tracked by Bloomberg, and the ISE National 100 Index advanced 2.4% to 38,066.89. “Investors see that the EU is only trying to intimidate Turkey and nobody expects talks to collapse,” said Omer Tanacan at Istanbul-based brokerage Garanti Securities. Simon Quijano-Evans, a strategist at Bank Austria Creditanstalt in Vienna, was more wary, saying opposition in Turkey to the commission recommendation may accentuate tensions with the EU. Because of “the likely negative reaction of the domestic electorate and media, we are unlikely to see a calming of sentiment even if there is a short-term rally in markets,” he said. The commission recommendation seeks to balance the demands of EU skeptics of Turkish entry including France, Germany and Austria and UK-led supporters who say the bloc should push harder for Turkish accession.

Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday reversed his stance and expressed support for Turkish entry into the EU and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday warned against derailing the talks. “We have got to make sure we allow Turkey's progression to succeed,” Blair told reporters in Riga. Cyprus joined the EU in May 2004 without the occupied northern region because voters in the Greek-speaking south rejected a United Nations-backed unification plan. The Turkish- speaking north endorsed the plan, leading Ankara to blame the Cypriot government for the island's continuing division. In February, EU governments approved €139 million ($183 million) in aid for northern Cyprus as a reward while refusing to let the region trade with the bloc. The debate about opening commercial ties with northern Cyprus raises intractable issues linked to unification. The Cypriot government says it would veto any EU plan for trade with the Turkish-occupied region without the return of a town called Varosha that Greek-speaking Cypriots abandoned after Turkey's invasion. The Finnish government has failed over the past several weeks to find a diplomatic solution to the trade dispute and said two days ago it was abandoning efforts to reach a settlement this year. Vanhanen plans to visit Ankara on December 1 for talks with Erdogan. (Bloomberg)