French hurdle to Turkey’s EU bid

PARIS – France yesterday raised a potential new hurdle to Turkey starting European Union membership talks in October, saying Ankara must recognize Cyprus first. The executive European Commission and EU President Britain said the 25 EU leaders had never made recognition a prerequisite for opening negotiations and that the Cyprus question should be dealt with separately in a UN framework. A Turkish official said the call by French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was an attempt to violate commitments the EU had made to Ankara last year, but he voiced confidence that President Jacques Chirac would keep his word to Turkey. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul responded cautiously to Villepin’s comments. «We expect France’s support for (Turkey’s) EU process. Turkey has fulfilled all its responsibilities,» the state Anatolia news agency quoted Gul as saying in Saudi Arabia, where he was attending the funeral of King Fahd. Greece meanwhile upped pressure over the divided island by postponing a planned visit to Turkey by Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis this month that would have been the first by a Greek premier to Ankara in more than 46 years. Villepin called into question the agreed October 3 date for the start of Turkey’s accession talks, just days after Ankara met the final official EU condition by signing an agreement extending its customs union to new EU members, including Cyprus. «It doesn’t seem conceivable to me that a negotiation process of whatever kind can start with a country that does not recognize every member state of the European Union, in other words, all 25 of them,» he told Europe 1 radio. «Entering a negotiation process, whatever it is, first assumes recognition of each of the members.» Asked whether this meant that the start of talks could be delayed from Oct. 3, Villepin said, «Of course,» adding that it was «urgent to wait, to wait for Turkey to show a real willingness to enter into this negotiation process.» Any member state can theoretically block the opening of talks, since all EU nations must approve a negotiating mandate unanimously before negotiations can begin. However, Villepin did not go as far as to suggest Paris would veto the start of talks, saying France would determine its position after talks among EU foreign ministers in September. Turkey signed the EU protocol last Friday but issued a declaration stipulating that the act did not signify recognition of the Greek-Cypriot government. A spokesman for the European Commission said the EU should stick to the commitments it made last December, when all 25 EU leaders agreed to open talks with Turkey once it had brought key reforms into force and signed the protocol. «We must now move forward and open negotiations on October 3,» the spokesman said. «The conditions set by the 25 member states, in our preliminary assessment, are fulfilled.» Signing the protocol was a step toward recognition in the Commission’s view, since it was an acknowledgement that Turkey would be negotiating with 25 states, he argued. A British presidency official said EU leaders had never made recognition of Cyprus a condition for opening talks, recalling that Chirac had said last December that signing the protocol did not mean recognizing Cyprus. Villepin was then foreign minister. «To set new conditions with two months to go would perhaps be seen as a breach of good faith,» the British official said. Public opinion in France has swung strongly against Turkish accession and leading conservative presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister and leader of the ruling UMP party, insists Turkey should not be offered full membership. Hostility to the poor, heavily populated and mostly Muslim state joining was one factor in the French referendum «no» to the EU Constitution in May. Diplomats said the French stance, shared by Austria, could encourage Cyprus to be obdurate on the EU negotiating mandate. Cypriot government spokesman Kypros Chrysostomides welcomed Villepin’s comments as «particularly positive.» Asked if Cyprus intended to use the French stance to achieve recognition before Turkey could begin accession talks, he told reporters in Nicosia that every effort would be made «to protect the interests of the Cyprus Republic.» Cyprus joined the EU in May 2004 despite the failure of a UN-backed plan to reunite the island, which Turkish Cypriots backed but Greek Cypriots vetoed. (Additional reporting by Zerin Elci in Ankara and Jean Christou in Nicosia.)

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