A standoff threatens EU-Turkey negotiation

Posted in Europe | 30-Sep-05 | Author: Graham Bowley| Source: International Herald Tribune

EU and Turkish flags flap in the breeze.
LONDON The European Union failed Thursday to agree on the terms for membership negotiations with Turkey, forcing Britain to call an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers on Sunday, the eve of the planned start of the talks.

A meeting of EU ambassadors in Brussels broke up after Austria stood alone among all 25 EU countries to insist that the Union could open talks next Monday only if a clear alternative to full membership were offered.

The failure to reach consensus throws into the open the tensions within Europe about admitting Turkey, a large poor country that would be the EU's first Muslim member.

It comes amid widespread skepticism in many countries about the advantages of embracing Turkey. It also raises questions about whether Austria, which is now isolated in the EU, will exercise its veto to block what had been billed as historic talks and thus throw European integration into fresh disarray.

The EU has been struggling to recover momentum since the French and the Dutch rejected the draft European constitution in May and June.

"There will be a ministerial meeting on Sunday evening to resolve this issue" of Turkey, said Jonathan Allen, a spokesman for the British government in Brussels.

Britain, one of the strongest supporters of Turkey's decades-long bid to join the EU and current holder of the EU presidency, had tried to avoid calling such an extraordinary meeting.

But it was forced to summon ministers to Luxembourg after diplomats from EU governments failed to win over Austria.

In the meantime, Britain says that it will continue to hold talks with the Austrians.

Austria is also unhappy that the EU could begin membership talks with Turkey before Croatia.

Austria, which has historical ties with Croatia, large parts of which were once part of the Hapsburg empire, is a firm supporter of Croatia's joining the EU.

Some European governments are worried that Austria's stance will provoke Turkey into walking away from the talks. Turkey has said it would not accept any goal for negotiations short of full membership.

In Ankara, the Turkish government declined to comment publicly. But Turkish diplomats said they were annoyed at what they regarded as political posturing by the Austrians.

"The government is hoping the Austrians are bluffing and still expects the talks to go ahead," said a person familiar with the government's thinking.

Opponents of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey were already making political capital out of the Austrian stance. Umit Ozdag, a leading figure in the nationalist MHP party, said Turks were growing impatient with the EU's constant snubbing and shifting of conditions. "I'm not at all surprised by what the Austrians are saying," he said. "The EU is constantly imposing double standards on Turkey. Even if they say yes on Oct. 3, the talks will never end."

Austria, which battled the Turkey-centered Ottoman Empire over centuries and is strongly Roman Catholic, is the most skeptical country in Europe about the advantages of admitting Turkey into the EU. It is worried about the cost of absorbing a poor country of 70 million people as well triggering massive immigration into Western Europe.

In an interview with the International Herald Tribune in Vienna on Wednesday, Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel said that Europe should offer Turkey an alternate relationship with the EU in case Europe was not ready to absorb Turkey, or if Turkey failed to meet the criteria for joining the union.

This position has set Austria at odds with all its partners in the EU, which all now believe that talks should start on Monday. It is also embarrassing to Britain, which has made the smooth opening of talks a priority of its presidency.

Other countries, such as France, where public sentiment is strongly against Turkish membership, had deep reservations about beginning negotiations, especially after Turkey refused to recognize Cyprus, an EU member.

But France's concerns were met after the EU drew up a declaration insisting that Turkey normalize political and trading relations with Cyprus beforejoining the EU. Dominique de Villepin, the French prime minister, sought to reassure the public Thursday by restating that France would accept Turkey into the union only after a national referendum.

The French have insisted, he told a press conference, "that the process be clearly controlled and that the French can take the decision by referendum."

The EU's talks with Croatia have been on hold since the spring after the EU judged that Croatia was not doing enough to catch an indicted war crimes suspect, Ante Gotovina.

Carla del Ponte, chief prosecutor of the international war crimes tribunal in the Hague, is due to report on Monday in Luxembourg on Croatia's cooperation in catching Gotovina. She was due to visit Zagreb on Friday.

Some diplomats have suggested that Austria may be willing to drop its opposition to Turkish membership talks if it gets an agreement to open talks with Croatia.

Britain, however, is insisting that the two issues not be linked, according to diplomats familiar with the issue.

The issue of Croatia is on the agenda of Monday's meeting, but Britain is insisting that no decision be made on that before the issue of Turkish membership talks is addressed.

Britain sees Austria's stance on Turkey as a fundamental reopening of a decision reached by EU leaders at a summit meeting in Brussels last December.

That decision, which involved highly sensitive language, stated that the shared goal of all 25 EU states in the talks was full accession by Turkey, although this could not be guaranteed.

However, in Brussels on Thursday, Austria continued to argue for the clear insertion of an alternate possible status for Turkey that stops short of full membership.

In Turkey, Ozdag, who is making a bid to head his party, said Turks were growing increasingly wary of a bloc that seemed intent on rejecting them.

"Last year, a majority of Turks supported the EU, but those numbers are dropping fast," he said.

A May poll by the Istanbul-based Foundation for Economic Development showed a drop in Turkish support for EU membership to 63 percent from 94 percent a year earlier. Ozdag said he favored expanding Turkey's economic ties with Europe, but remaining aloof from a Christian club that would never accept Muslim Turkey as a member.

In Istanbul, Sema Yuksel, a public relations manager for a restaurant in the city's fashionable Taksim area, said she was eager for Turkey to join the EU, but was losing hope.

"We have done everything they ask, we keep making sacrifices, and they keep adding more and more conditions," she said. "I am beginning to get fed up."

Dan Bilefsky in Istanbul contributed reporting to this article.