EU Backs Proposed Talks Date Opposed by Turkey

BRUSSELS (Reuters)–European Union foreign ministers overwhelmingly backed a Franco-German proposal to open membership talks with Turkey in 2005 if it passes a review in 2004–despite Ankara’s demand for an earlier–firmer date.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told reporters on Tuesday that his colleagues were "overwhelmingly positive" to the plan and EU president Denmark would use it as the basis for a Copenhagen summit agreement on Friday.

"There was a large majority which could agree to this proposal," Fischer said.

"The presidency announced that it will take this into account in its conclusions and I hope that the Turkish side can also see how wide this opens the door in favor of Turkish interests," he added.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac agreed last week that Turkey should be offered entry talks starting July 1–2005 provided it meets EU criteria on democracy and human rights by a review in December 2004.

Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan branded the plan unacceptable and accused the EU of double standards on for not giving a clear date.

In a December 7 letter to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen–Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul requested a firm date for opening accession negotiations no later than May 2004–when 10 leading candidates are due to join the EU.

"Furthermore–if a concrete date is given to Turkey for the opening of accession negotiations–this will definitely create a positive environment which will also facilitate the settlement of the Cyprus issue," Gul wrote.

However–several EU ministers said the Turks must first demonstrate that they are implementing human rights reforms such as the abolition of torture–prosecution of torturers–release of political prisoners–increased freedom of speech and greater minority rights for Kurds and non-Muslims.

"They will get perhaps not a final date–but a ‘date for a date’ that should be relatively soon," Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh said.

"It has to be in a time-frame that gives them some realistic possibility to see through and show they are serious about the new (reform) programmes. So we are talking about a couple of years," she said.

The Franco-German proposal considered the encouraging first steps by the new Turkish government; that’s more than Ankara could have expected two months ago–Lindh added.

EU diplomats were disappointed with Erdogan’s harsh tone during a stopover in Copenhagen on Monday and the fact that he had sought to exploit sensitive issues with current candidates such as the rights of Latvia’s Russian minority or the treatment of Roma–or gypsies–in central and eastern Europe.

"The noises from Turkey are very negative and very tough.

This is not the door to enter the Union," one said.

Germany’s BDI industrialists’ grouping published a paper on "Five good reasons for a clear European perspective for Turkey."

"The BDI would welcome it if entry talks with Turkey would start as soon as possible. But Turkey must comply with all the conditions which apply to other EU candidates," BDI chief Michael Rogowski said.

"To German industry–Turkey is a strategic and significant partner," he said–adding the association wanted Turkey and the EU to form a common economic area soon as an interim step.

TURKISH PM CRIES ‘INJUSTICE’

ANKARA– Prime Minister Abdullah Gul said on Tuesday the European Union would be committing an injustice against Turkey if it failed to give it a date to begin membership talks at a summit in Copenhagen this week.

Muslim Turkey is the only EU candidate not negotiating its entry–because it has not yet met Brussels’ political terms. But the bloc has signaled Turkey could begin talks in 2005 if it makes further progress on efforts to improve human rights.

"If you compare Turkey to other candidate countries you will see that Turkey is in a much better situation,” Gul told party members. "If an injustice is committed against Turkey in Copenhagen–it will be the political choice of EU leaders.”

Gul said parliament would pass a batch of human rights reforms–including sanctions against torture and tougher criteria for political party bans–by Wednesday as it races to fulfill EU criteria before the summit begins on Thursday.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said on Thursday a "large majority” of EU members supported a Franco-German plan to allow Turkey to begin talks on July 1–2005–if it fulfilled criteria in a December 2004 review.

Ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader Tayyip Erdogan has called that proposal unacceptable–accusing the EU of double standards.

Gul also said if Turkey’s bid faltered it could affect UN efforts to reunite Cyprus–a front-runner for EU membership.

Europe wants Ankara to press northern Cyprus’s ethnic Turks to sign a UN-backed deal before the summit–where it will outline its plans to admit the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government by 2004.

Greek and Turkish Cypriots have lived separately since a 1974 coup by Greek Cypriot militants seeking union with Greece triggered a Turkish invasion.

"When we talk about a solution on Cyprus–losing Cyprus…is something we can absolutely not accept,” Gul said. "The attitude that is taken towards Turkey at the Copenhagen summit is related to the stance towards Cyprus."

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