EU Says Cyprus ?Serious Obstacle? for Turkey

BRUSSELS/ANKARA (Reuters)–The European Commission said on Wednesday that failure to settle the Cyprus issue could pose a "serious obstacle" to Turkey’s bid to open EU membership talks–rebuffing pressure from Ankara to avoid such linkage.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul vowed to step up efforts to end the decades-old division of the island by next May–when Cyprus joins the EU–but added that it should not be used to delay the opening of negotiations with his country.

In its annual progress report–the Commission praised the year-old Turkish government for political and economic reforms which–if fully implemented–could help it win a start to accession negotiations when EU leaders decide in December 2004.

But it also said: "The absence of a settlement (on Cyprus) could become a serious obstacle to Turkey’s EU aspirations."

Gul had called on Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen on Tuesday evening to urge the EU executive not to link its candidacy and the Cyprus problem in the report.

But Verheugen told the European Parliament the Commission believed its strong political message would help the Turkish government face down hard-line opponents of a Cyprus settlement.

EU leaders decided in 1999 that a peace deal should not be a precondition for Turkish accession talks.

Verheugen–however–told parliament: "This is simply noting a fact. We simply note that if there is not a solution to the Cyprus question–then this would be a considerable obstacle to Turkey’s aspirations to Europe. That’s all we’re saying."

The move helped drive the Turkish lira and bonds lower on Wednesday on market fears the Cyprus issue could delay accession talks. The lira ended at 1,474,000 to the dollar on the interbank market–down from Tuesday’s close of 1,472,000.

TURKEY WANTS DEAL

Gul said Turkey–the only country to recognize Rauf Denktash’s breakaway Turkish Cypriot enclave–wanted a deal.

"We all want a solution to the Cyprus problem. We will make a great effort to solve the problem before May 1–2004 (when Cyprus joins the EU)," he said.

But in a clear swipe at the Greek Cypriots–who will represent the whole island of Cyprus in the absence of a peace settlement–he added: "Certain countries should not feel themselves comfortable just because they are entering the EU."

Turkey has occupied the northern third of Cyprus since 1974–when it invaded in response to a short-lived coup in Nicosia by Greek Cypriots seeking union with Greece.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan faulted Denktash for the failure of UN-mediated peace talks last March.

On Wednesday–Denktash was typically defiant–blaming the Greek Cypriots and their patron Greece for the lack of progress.

"The EU is being used as an instrument to turn Cyprus into a Greek island," he told CNN Turk television.

The internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government was clearly satisfied with the wording of the Commission’s report.

"This is a confirmation that all countries of the EU consider the solution to the Cyprus problem as important…All seem to consider (Cyprus’s division) as a potential obstacle to Turkey’s EU aspirations," said government spokesman Kypros Chrysostomides in Nicosia.

Verheugen said there was a "window of opportunity" for peace talks right after Turkish Cypriot parliamentary elections on December 14. Denktash’s opponents have vowed to sideline him and push for Cyprus’s reunification if they win.

CYPRUS ISSUE OVERSHADOWS PRAISE

The Cyprus problem overshadowed praise for what the Commission called Ankara’s great determination in accelerating far-reaching changes to the political and legal system.

But the report said implementation remained uneven–with some executive and judicial bodies narrowing the scope of human rights reforms by establishing restrictive conditions.

The Turkish government put a positive spin on the report–saying in a statement: "We are determined to fulfill the necessary objective conditions sufficiently and in time to win at the end of 2004 a decision to open negotiations.

"The EU’s acceptance of the importance of our revolutionary reforms will accelerate our work."

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