Austria on EU Collision Course over Turkey Talks

BRUSSELS (EUPolitix/Reuters)–Austria appears to be on a collision course with its European Union partners over the terms for starting accession talks with Turkey next week–raising the risk of a last-minute cliffhanger unless Vienna backs down.

With 80 percent of his electorate opposed to Turkish entry–Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel is holding out for a face-saving formula in the EU negotiating mandate spelling out the prospect of less than full membership–diplomats said.

"Austria is insisting on an alternative to membership," a senior EU diplomat said. Turkey says it would walk away if the EU mentioned the "privileged partnership" sought by Vienna.

The Austrians seem isolated after Cyprus–Greece–and France accepted a deal last week on the other key issue that had clouded the planned October 3 start of accession negotiations–Turkey’s refusal to recognize Cyprus.

Unless Vienna backs down at a meeting of ambassadors of the 25-nation bloc on Thursday–EU president Britain will call an emergency foreign ministers’ session in Luxembourg on Sunday evening to seek agreement–hours before Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul is due to arrive and start the negotiations.

"We could end up with Gul sitting with his suitcase at Ankara Airport waiting for word on the final language of the negotiating mandate. That would be very humiliating for the Turks and get the talks off to the worst possible start," another EU diplomat said.

Turkey has insisted that it will walk away from any negotiations proposing privileged partnership.

Turkish foreign minister Ali Babacan–said Europe must not move the goal posts at the last minute.

European Enlargement Commissioner Ollie Rehn has dismissed the privileged partnership option–insisting that talks must aim for full membership.

"Whatever that [privileged partnership] could mean I’m willing to listen–but I have not yet heard very convincing answers," he said.

Complicating matters–Austria has informally linked its acceptance of the start of Turkey talks to the start of negotiations with Croatia.

Speaking earlier this month–Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel said,

"I would find it grotesque if we begin negotiations with Turkey and leave Croatia outside the door to starve."

Austria’s stance reflects growing public opposition in much of Western Europe to admitting the vast–poor–overwhelmingly Muslim country on the edge of Europe and the Middle East.

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