European Commission deals blow to Turkey’s EU ambitions

BRUSSELS (AFP) – The European Commission dealt a blow to Turkey’s EU membership ambitions, recommending a partial freezing of the talks process over Ankara’s hardline stance on Cyprus.

The commission urged that eight of the 35 policy chapters which all candidate nations must complete remain closed, a move which brought an angry reaction from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“The decision of the commission is unacceptable,” Erdogan told journalists in Riga, where he was attending a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation summit.

However EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told a press conference here that the measures were “firm but fair.”

“It is no train crash, no freeze, no hibernation, but yes it is a slowing down,” Rehn said after announcing the decision, which was unanimous among the 25 member states, but not before intense closed-door debate.

“Europe needs Turkey and Turkey needs Europe,” he added.

For months the EU had been threatening to recommend full or partial suspension of membership talks with Turkey over its refusal to open its ports to Cyprus under a customs agreement.

Ankara says the 25-nation bloc must first keep its 2004 promise to ease economic sanctions imposed on the island’s breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognized only by Turkey.

Cyprus expressed its unease over what it sees as a softly-softly approach by the European Union towards Turkey.

“For the Cyprus government the freezing of some chapters while Turkey, at the same time, continues its accession course as if nothing has happened, does not constitute a sanction,” government spokesman Christodoulos Pashardes told reporters in Nicosia.

The Commission recommended that the EU should “not open negotiations on chapters covering policy areas relevant to Turkey’s restrictions as regards the Republic of Cyprus, until the Commission confirms that Turkey has fulfilled its commitments.”

The EU’s executive arm also urged member states that while some of the chapters, such as those dealing with culture, education or monetary policy, could be opened soon, none should be formally closed until the Commission is happy with Turkey’s attitude to the divided island of Cyprus.

EU foreign ministers are expected to make a final decision on the matter, taking the Commission’s recommendations into account, when they meet here on December 11.

Otherwise the matter would fall into the lap of EU leaders at a summit on December 14-15. Most parties are keen to avoid a “Turkey summit,” as Rehn put it.

The difference of opinion among member states was instantly clear.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, also speaking in Latvia, warned that it would be a “serious mistake” to send a negative signal to Turkey over its EU membership.

“Just at the moment to send an adverse signal to Turkey I think would be a serious mistake,” he said.

However German chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the Commission’s recommendations.

“I think that the European Commission’s proposition is a strong signal,” Merkel told reporters in Riga.

Opponents of the Commission’s move argue that it will strengthen the hand of Turkish nationalists and fan the flames of growing anti-EU sentiment there.

All 35 policy areas, on the full gamut of subjects, must be satisfactorily dealt with before any candidate nation is considered for full EU membership. So far just one chapter has been opened and closed in Turkey’s case and there has been next to no movement in the process since June.

Finland, which is a supporter of Turkey’s EU membership, has been trying to resolve the stalemate since September with a proposal that included Turkey opening its ports and the EU trading directly with the self-proclaimed TRNC.

But Helsinki threw in the towel on Monday, saying there was no hope of an agreement during its EU presidency, which concludes on December 31.

The eight chapters which the EU’s executive arm is recommending be frozen are those on free movement of goods, the right of establishment and freedom to provide services, financial services, agriculture and rural development, fisheries, transport policy, customs union and external relations.

Turkey’s accession process is already expected to take at least a decade and no guarantees have been provided of its eventual success.

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