EU Talks Hinge on Cyprus, German Leader Tells Turkey

ANKARA (Agence France Presse)–Turkey must meet its obligation to grant Cyprus trade privileges if it wants to avoid having its troubled talks with the European Union suspended, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said. But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Thursday that Ankara’s compliance would depend on the European bloc delivering on its pledge to ease the international isolation of Cyprus’s breakaway Turkish state. The divided Mediterranean island is proving to be one of the biggest obstacles in Ankara’s talks for membership in the EU only one year after they began amid widespread skepticism about whether this overwhelmingly Muslim country of 73 million has a place in Europe. Turkey, despite a customs union agreement with the bloc, refuses to open its air and sea ports to EU-member Cyprus, which it does not recognize, triggering warnings from Brussels that Ankara’s failure to comply could result in the suspension of accession talks. The row has heated up ahead of a crucial annual report that the European Commission will issue on November 8 on Turkey’s progress in the talks. "The Ankara protocol must be implemented. It is standing before us as a pre-condition. This issue must be resolved for the continuation of (membership) talks," Merkel, on her first visit to Turkey since coming to power last year, told reporters after talks with Erdogan. The Ankara Protocol extends the customs union between Turkey and the EU to the 10 countries that joined the bloc in May 2004, including Cyprus. Turkey signed the protocol in July 2005, but says Cypriot vessels will remain barred from Turkish facilities unless the EU honors its promise to ease trade restrictions on the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which Ankara alone recognizes. "We are absolutely not in favor of opening our air and sea ports (to Cypriot use) if the isolation (of the TRNC) is not lifted," Erdogan said. The TRNC won pledges of financial aid and direct trade from the EU when Turkish Cypriots overwhelmingly voted in favor of a UN settlement plan in April 2004. The plan was killed off when the Greek Cypriots rejected it in a simultaneous referendum. After overcoming opposition from the Cypriot government, Brussels unblocked financial aid for Turkish Cypriots but there has been no progress on the trade package. Merkel was nonetheless optimistic that the row over the Ankara protocol would be resolved through a proposal drawn up by Finland, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency. "I see that this proposal was welcomed positively by the Turkish side. I hope we are about to resolve a difficult problem," she said. Erdogan asked Germany, which will take over the six-month EU presidency on January 1, to support Ankara in the membership talks, which are also clouded by concerns over the slowing pace of democratic reforms in Turkey. Before becoming chancellor, Merkel was opposed to accession talks with Turkey, arguing instead for a "privileged partnership." Since then, she has softened her stance and dropped her opposition under a power-sharing deal with Germany’s Social Democrats, who strongly support Turkey’s accession. The German government, however, has stressed that the outcome of the negotiations remains "open" and guarantees nothing. After official talks here Thursday, Merkel will meet Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders–including Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Greek Orthodox believers–in Istanbul on Friday. She will also attend a meeting with Turkish and German businessmen. Germany, home to a 2.5-million community of Turkish immigran’s, is also one of Turkey’s principal trade partners with volume between the two standing at 23 billion dollars in 2005.

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