Turkey France Clash over Cyprus as EU Talks Loom

ANKARA (Reuters/Bloomberg)–Turkey and France clashed on August 4 over whether Ankara should recognize Cyprus–a European Union member–before it begins its own EU entry talks on October 3.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey could not accept any new conditions for opening the talks and that he was upset by commen’s from France that Ankara must first accept the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government.

"It is out of the question for us to discuss or consider any new conditions with regards to October 3," Erdogan told reporters in televised commen’s.

"We are saddened by the statemen’s of the French prime minister and of President (Jacques) Chirac," he added.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said on August 2 it was "inconceivable" that Turkey start talks with the EU without recognizing one of its 25 member states–though he did not say if Paris would deploy its veto.

Chirac has not publicly commented on Turkey’s EU talks this week–but the French daily Le Figaro–quoting unnamed ministers–reported that the president told a cabinet meeting he agreed with his prime minister.

Chirac’s office declined to comment on the report. Chirac has traditionally backed Turkey’s EU bid but now faces growing opposition among French voters to admitting the large–relatively poor–mainly Muslim country into the wealthy bloc.

PRESSURE

Maintaining pressure on Ankara–French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy repeated Villepin’s criticism on August 4.

"Not wanting to recognize one country in the Union while wanting to join [is] not acceptable," Douste-Blazy told Le Monde newspaper in an interview.

"We would like there to be an extensive discussion on this question within the EU," he added.

Ankara recognizes only a breakaway Turkish Cypriot enclave in northern Cyprus. The island has been split along ethnic lines since Turkish troops invaded in 1974 after a brief Greek Cypriot coup backed by the military junta then ruling Greece.

France can block the start of talks–as can Cyprus–as the 25 EU states must approve a negotiating mandate unanimously before they can begin. Villepin said France would decide its position after talks among EU foreign ministers in September.

Turkey cleared the last formal hurdle to the start of its entry talks last Friday by signing a protocol extending its customs union to new EU members including Cyprus.

However–Ankara also issued a declaration making clear the signing did not mean a change in its stance over the island–whose Greek Cypriot government is viewed in Brussels as the sole legitimate authority.

Turkey says recognition can come only after a comprehensive peace settlement on the Mediterranean island.

Ankara believes it has done all it can reasonably be expected to do about Cyprus by backing a UN-brokered peace deal last year which Turkish Cypriots also endorsed in a referendum. The plan was not supported by the Greek Cypriots.

Despite the latest French commen’s–Erdogan said he was confident Turkey would begin entry talks on schedule.

"We will start the negotiations on October 3. We think only of the negotiations," Erdogan said.

The talks are expected to last many years and Turkey is not expected to join the EU before 2015 at the earliest.

NOT EUROPEAN ENOUGH

British Prime Minister Tony Blair–the current EU term president–advocates Turkish membership in the EU while politicians including Germany’s Christian Democrats and Nicolas Sarkozy–leader of Chirac’s ruling party–say it is not European enough to join in terms of geography–history and culture.

Turkey won a date to start the accession process with the EU after its parliament passed laws strengthening the nation’s democracy. A latest draft law on foundations has loopholes that fail to guarantee religious freedoms for non-Muslims in Turkey–European Commission spokesman Amadeu Altafaj told a Brussels press conference.

While the legislation doesn’t pose a new barrier to the start of EU membership talks–the commission has "expressed some concerns about the implication of this law on the non-Muslim community," Altafaj said. Turkey has promised to overhaul the law when parliament reconvenes in October–he added.

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