NEWS

Italy backs Turkish call for early talks on accession

ROME (Reuters) – Italy will support Turkey’s bid to launch European Union accession talks in the first half of 2005, Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini said yesterday, putting Rome on a potential collision course with France. European Union leaders are expected at a December 17 summit to invite Turkey to start negotiations on joining the 25-member bloc, but it is not clear when the talks will begin. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul is touring EU capitals to push for the sensitive discussions to start before July next year, and won firm backing from Italy for his cause. «I hope that the December summit indicates a date in the first six months (of 2005),» Fini said following talks with Gul. French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said earlier this month that any negotiations were unlikely to begin until the end of next year or early 2006. Polls show a large majority of French voters are against Turkey joining the 25-member bloc, but Fini said any delays in starting negotiations risked fueling anti-Turkish sentiment. «It wouldn’t make much sense to take more time (over talks) or even to put off the launch of talks until much further down the line,» Fini said. «If this opinion wins the day, then it would risk creating a negative effect.» The European Commission has already recommended the opening of talks but, in a nod to public opinion, has said they should be «open-ended,» without a firm guarantee of eventual membership. Fini acknowledged that the accession process was likely to be «long and complex» and told Gul that Turkey had to understand that the issue aroused strong feelings in many countries. Gul repeated his call for a clear timetable for the talks and said the only possible outcome should be full Turkish membership of the European Union. «There is no alternative to full membership,» he said, speaking through an interpreter. «The EU must respect its commitments and talks should begin without any conditions attached in the first six months of 2005.»