French Premier Says EU Turkey Talks May Be Delayed

(AFP/Bloomberg)–French Prime Minister Dominique De Villepin demanded Turkey recognize Cyprus before starting talks on joining the European Union–threatening EU enlargement and deepening a rift with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"It doesn’t seem to me that a process of negotiations can start with a country that doesn’t recognize each one of the members of the EU," De Villepin told Europe 1 radio today. "Absolutely," he said when asked whether the negotiations–scheduled for October 3–may be delayed.

Turkey will not agree to any deman’s to recognize the Republic of Cyprus as a condition to begin accession talks with the European Union later this year–a source close to the Ankara government said.

"Turkey will never accept the recognition of the Greek Cypriots administration as a precondition to be able to begin membership negotiations with the European Union on October 3," the source–who requested anonymity–told AFP.

De Villepin’s comment put him at odds with the EU enlargement commissioner and with Blair–who holds the rotating EU presidency. They add to disagreemen’s between France and Britain that have included European agriculture subsidies–the war in Iraq and the site of the 2012 Olympics.

Turkey signed an accord last week extending trade preferences to Cyprus–which the EU said cleared the way for membership talks. Turkey said it won’t recognize a Cypriot government until a solution is found to the island’s three-decade partition. A Muslim nation of 72 million–Turkey has said EU talks will attract record investment to its $300 billion economy.

The 25 EU members must fulfill the pledge they made in December to start the talks on October 3–Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said today in Riyadh–Saudi Arabia–CNN Turk television reported.

‘EU’s Criticism’

De Villepin’s commen’s undermine a December accord among European leaders that distinguished between expanding the customs union and recognizing Cyprus–said Amadeu Altafaj–a spokesman for the Brussels-based European Commission–the EU executive arm.

"If somebody wants to add conditions–then this will have to be discussed," he said. Recognition should be settled through the United Nations–and "there’s a UN track for the recognition of Cyprus," added Altafaj.

Turkey’s benchmark stock index fell 0.8 percent to 29,543–reversing a gain of 0.4 percent before the commen’s were reported.

The new French demand counters President Jacques Chirac’s agreement on December 17 when EU leaders set the date for talks with Turkey to begin. Chirac said at the time Turkey must recognize Cyprus to join the EU. It was not a requirement to start talks.

`Privileged Partnership’

Following French voters’ rejection of the EU constitution in a referendum May 29–Chirac urged fellow EU leaders to reconsider planned enlargement.

"The government is drawing a lesson from the loss of the referendum: public fear of enlargement–especially to Turkey," said Philippe Moreau Defarges–a senior fellow at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris.

Sixty-six percent of the French want Turkey to stay out of the European Union–a June 7 opinion poll by CSA showed.

Nicolas Sarkozy–who heads Chirac’s Union for a Popular Movement party and may seek to replace him in 2007’s presidential elections–opposes Turkey joining the EU. Turkey could face opposition in Germany if Angela Merkel–the opposition candidate for chancellor–wins the September 18 elections. Like Sarkozy–she supports a "privileged partnership" instead of full membership.

"The whole Turkey decision is a game of chicken," said Katinka Barysch–an analyst at the London-based Center for European Reform. "There are lots of countries that want to speak out on it–but no one wants to be seen as the one who vetoes the process."

Blair’s Backing

French skepticism towards Turkey contrasts with commen’s by Blair. Hungary–one of 10 nations that joined the EU last year–also backs Turkey. "Everybody also wants–I think I am right in saying–Turkey inside the European Union." Blair said July 26. "When there was some suggestion before the accession of Cyprus to the European Union that a unified island should be a pre-condition of accession–it was Britain that said ‘no you can’t make this a precondition.’" Ferenc Szabo–Hungary’s deputy foreign affairs spokesman’said in a phone interview in Budapest August 2 that "Turkey has fulfilled all conditions set by the EU."France no longer surprises with such negative commen’s about Turkey’s EU bid," said Elif Cengiz–who helps manage about $4 billion at Is Portfolio Management in Istanbul. "French politicians made similar noise before the December 17 decision to start membership talks with Turkey. The pro-Turkish U.K. holding the rotational presidency provides an advantage to Turkey."

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