EU Bares Its Differences on Turkey Accession Talks

EC PRESIDENT SAYS TURKEY WON’T HAVE DATE TO START ACCESSION TALKS AT COPENHAGEN MEETING

BRUSSELS (Reuters)–Cracks emerged within the European Union on Thursday over Turkey’s bid for membership–with conflicting signals on whether Ankara would get a date to start accession talks at the 15-nation bloc’s December summit.

European Commission President Romano Prodi said the EU executive would not propose a date at the meeting in Copenhagen–but EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana sounded an unusually blunt note of disagreement just a few hours later.

"That is the opinion of Mr. Prodi," he told reporters.

"We’ll see what happens from here to Copenhagen. It’s too early to make statemen’s of that nature."

The 15-nation EU has said Turkey–the only Muslim candidate for membership–needs to improve its patchy human rights record before talks can begin–and a recent European Commission report said Ankara does not yet fully meet EU conditions. At a news conference–Prodi praised laws adopted in Turkey in August to abolish the death penalty in peacetime–permit greater freedom of expression and permit the use of minority languages in private education and broadcasting.

But he said they needed to be put into practice.

"We are generally very satisfied that in legislative terms an awful lot of progress has been made," he said. "Those were decisions of historic importance."

"In our report we did say that Copenhagen criteria also require practical implementation at an administrative level of those rules–and that is something which we have not yet seen happen–and therefore in Copenhagen we would not be expecting to submit a date to start negotiations with Turkey.”

A DATE FOR A DATE

But diplomats said the EU could agree to fix some sort of deadline for reviewing Turkey’s candidacy and giving it a starting date–even if the Commission makes no recommendation.

"We have to send all the positive signals to Turkey," Solana said. Turkey is an important strategic ally…and therefore we want to continue to construct a very profound and positive relationship with Turkey."

EU leaders–meeting in Brussels on Thursday–were expected to agree that 10 east European and Mediterranean candidates–including Cyprus–are ready to wrap up entry talks in December and join in 2004. They may also endorse a 2007 target date for less advanced candidates Bulgaria and Romania to join the bloc.

Ankara–the only candidate which has not yet started accession talks–is pressing hard to be given a date at that December summit.

EU officials have said its attitude in promoting a peaceful settlement to the division of Cyprus before the December deadline will play an important role in determining whether EU leaders give Ankara a clearer membership path.

Only Britain and Greece have called for the EU to set a date at the Copenhagen summit for opening talks with Turkey. Germany–historically among the most reticent about Turkish membership–now says it favors giving Ankara a "date for a date."

That would involve promising that the EU would review Turkey’s progress–probably sometime next year–with a view to fixing the starting date for accession negotiations.

Separately–Solana said that Greece and Turkey had made "very–very important progress" in breaking a deadlock on an agreement which would guarantee the EU access to NATO assets for crisis management operations.

"We are working very carefully on that and I do think we are at a moment when positions are closer," he said.

Asked if the ball was in the Greek court in a standoff that has hamstrung the EU’s rapid reaction force from birth–he replied: "The ball is still in the air."

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