(Bloomberg)– The European Union’s top expansion negotiator said Tuesday Turkey is heading for a "major accident" in its membership bid unless it opens its ports to ships from Cyprus.
"If we want to avoid a major problem in the autumn–Turkey needs to stick to its word without hesitation," Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee in Brussels. "Turkey should open its ports to vessels under the flag of all member states–including the Republic of Cyprus."
The talks hit a snag last week only four days after getting under way when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan balked at an EU demand that Turkey end its trade curbs on Cyprus–an EU member since 2004.
Turkey’s bid to become the EU’s first Muslim country is running into grassroots opposition as well–amid a backlash against lower-paid immigran’s after the EU’s expansion to ex-communist Eastern Europe in 2004.
"I am concerned that the reform process has lost its momentum," Rehn told the parliamentary panel today. "While there has been legislative progress on the ground–the implementation of the reforms remains uneven."
Turkey has occupied the northern tier of Cyprus since a 1974 invasion in response to a Greek-backed coup–and the Mediterranean island’s disputed status has been the biggest barrier to the EU bid.
Turkey pledged to end trade restrictions on the southern–Greek Cypriot Government as part of the EU entry process. Erdogan said last week that Turkey wouldn’t honor that promise until the EU drops its own curbs on northern Cyprus.
"When those who broke their word start to keep it–they’ll get an immediate response from us," Erdogan told lawmakers from his party in Ankara. "But if promises aren’t kept then nobody should expect our ports or airports."
Turkish officials point out that Cyprus remains divided because the Greek Cypriots voted against a United Nations-backed reunification plan that was supported by Turkish Cypriots and by Erdogan’s Government.
Turkey has per-capita economic production equal to 31 percent of the EU level–triggering fears that Turkish migran’s could price western workers out of jobs. EU unemployment is 8.3 percent–compared to 4.7 percent in the US.
Some 63 percent of Europeans fear that further expansion would push up unemployment and drive down wages–according to an EU-sponsored poll of 25,000 people conducted between February and March.
Referring to the public discontent–European Commission President Jose Barroso told the full Parliament earlier today that "we must make sure that the union does not simply enlarge by default."
EU pressure is also mounting on Turkey to end the discrimination of the Kurdish minority–give non-Muslims complete religious freedom–improve media freedoms–crack down on police brutality–and enhance the status of women.
A resolution debated by the Parliament committee Tuesday "regrets the slowing down of the reform process" and "deplores the fact that only limited progress has been reported over the least year as regards fundamental rights and freedoms."
Turkish legislators Monday delayed until late July debate on a law that would give non-governmental organizations more rights and freedoms–part of the EU’s catalogue of deman’s. The government had sought passage of the law by the end of June.
A progress report to be issued by Rehn’s department in October or November looms as a key test of Turkey’s commitment to reshaping its society along western lines and of the EU’s commitment to let Turkey in.