EU gives Turkey deadline on Cyprus but Turks demur

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Commission set Turkey a mid-December deadline on Wednesday to open its ports to shipping from Cyprus or face consequences for its troubled European Union membership bid. But Ankara rejected any linkage between the Cyprus issue and its accession process, urging EU leaders to act responsibly and keep their own promises to Turkey when they review its progress at a summit next month. The EU executive’s annual report on Turkey’s progress was issued amid growing public skepticism about further enlargement. "Failure to implement its obligations in full will affect the overall progress in the negotiations," the report said. Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Brussels had decided to give a chance for diplomatic efforts, led by the Finnish EU presidency, to find a solution on the Cyprus issue. The Commission said it would make "relevant recommendations" before a December 14-15 summit of the 25 EU leaders if Turkey did not comply. Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn declined to say if that might entail a partial or total suspension of the talks. The Turkish government responded by saying in a statement that "the Cyprus question is a political question and is not an obligation in the context of our accession process". Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan dismissed talk of a possible collapse of the talks, due to last at least a decade, but he acknowledged some negotiating ‘chapters’ might be held back. In the sharpest reaction among EU member states, France said that if Turkey did not comply by next month, the EU would have to review its timetable for Turkish accession. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said Ankara was committed to fulfilling all the EU’s entry conditions but that everyone must "take a step forward" to resolve the Cyprus issue. Analysts said it would be hard for the government to make the concession sought by the EU without incurring a nationalist backlash in the run-up to a general election next year. The Turkish lira fell more than 1 percent against the dollar with traders citing the Cyprus obstacle as a negative factor. Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 in response to a coup by Greek Cypriots seeking union with Greece. It does not recognize the Greek Cypriot government that represents the divided island in the EU, but does back a Turkish Cypriot republic in northern Cyprus, shunned by the international community. The EU executive recommended no dramatic step forward with any other candidate in southeastern Europe as it seeks to rebuild political support for an enlargement policy that it says has been a huge success in spreading prosperity and stability. Rehn said EU expansion was not a bullet train but a slow-moving "Orient Express". But it was essential to keep the train on track so the EU could use its "soft power" to transform its neighborhood democratically, he said. Public doubts in western Europe center on Turkey, a sprawling, poor, overwhelmingly Muslim nation of 73 million on the southeastern fringe of Europe, which is the most populous and most different country ever to apply to join the Union. Rehn said suggestions in some media that Turkey was going backwards in its integration efforts were wrong. It had made some progress in reforms this year, but the pace had slowed. The EU demanded the repeal or amendment of a key article of the penal code used to prosecute writers and intellectuals for "insulting Turkishness". It also sought greater efforts to strengthen religious freedom; the rights of women, minorities and trade unions; and civilian control of the military. And it urged Ankara to address social and economic problems in the largely Kurdish southeast. EU sources said at least four commissioners — including Markos Kyprianou of Cyprus, Stavros Dimas of Greece, Jacques Barrot of France and Viviane Reding of Luxembourg–urged the Commission to threaten to suspend the talks, but were rebuffed. Rehn voiced full support for Finland’s attempt to broker a diplomatic solution on trade with Cyprus by mid-December. Those efforts suffered a setback last week when Finland failed to get all the parties to the dispute around a table. Seeking to assuage public "anxieties and misapprehensions", the Commission said there was no prospect of another large expansion like the 2004 "big bang", when 10 mostly ex-communist states joined. Rehn vowed to monitor candidates’ progress in political and economic reforms more closely and tie the results to the accession process, drawing on lessons from the latest enlargement, which will see Romania and Bulgaria join in 2007. But the Commission resisted pressure, notably from France, to set final borders for the bloc, arguing that "the European Union is defined first and foremost by its values".

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