Verheugen Warns Turkey Over Cyprus Settlement

BRUSSELS (Reuters)–The European Union’s top official for enlargement told Turkey on Tuesday its bid to join the wealthy bloc could suffer unless there is a peace settlement in Cyprus.

Greek and Turkish Cypriots are struggling to end the decades-old division of their Mediterranean island ahead of its accession to the EU in May 2004. Without a deal–the EU has said it will admit only the internationally recognized Greek half.

"After May 1–2004–they (the Turks) would face a situation where Turkey does not recognize one of the EU member states,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said in a speech to British parliamentarians in London.

"It is difficult to see how it would be possible to start accession negotiations (with Turkey) under such circumstances,” said Verheugen–a copy of whose speech was distributed to reporters in Brussels.

The implication was that the Greek Cypriot government–and perhaps Greece itself–would boycott Turkey’s EU membership bid if it failed to cooperate over Cyprus reunification.

Turkey has been an EU candidate since 1999 but has yet to begin accession negotiations because of continued concerns over its human rights record. The EU has signaled it may finally open talks in early 2005 if Turkey makes the necessary reforms.

Verheugen praised a UN peace plan that envisages a loose confederation for Cyprus with wide-ranging autonomy for the two communities–saying it provided the best chance for a solution.

He also repeated the EU’s offer of substantial financial aid to the impoverished Turkish Cypriots in the event of a deal.

"No settlement would lead to continued economic decline and isolation for the northern part (of the island),” he said.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said he will abandon efforts to end the division of Cyprus if the two sides do not agree by March 10 to submit his peace plan to a referendum.

If the votes pass–a united island could join the EU in 2004 after signing the accession treaty next month in Athens.

Cyprus has been partitioned along ethnic lines since 1974–when Turkey invaded to thwart a Greek Cypriot coup engineered by the military junta then in Athens. Only Ankara recognizes the Turkish Cypriot state–where it has stationed 30,000 troops.

Verheugen said Turkey itself had made "impressive” progress in its path towards the EU–but urged the Ankara government to remove continued restrictions on freedom of speech–religion and association and to curb the political role of the military.

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