EU ‘confident’ Turkey talks will start on time

BRUSSELS – The European Union’s enlargement chief said yesterday he was reasonably confident that Turkey’s membership talks would start as planned on October 3, in spite of calls for Ankara to recognize Cyprus before that date. «If we stick to what we have ourselves decided at the highest political level in the European Council, as we should, I am reasonably confident that the negotiations shall start on October 3,» Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said. The comment was in a copy of a speech he gave in the German city of Hamburg yesterday. EU leaders agreed in December that Ankara could begin talks to join the bloc on October 3. However, last week French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said it was inconceivable for Turkey to begin negotiations without recognizing Cyprus, which became an EU member last year. Turkey signed a protocol last month extending its customs union to new EU members, including Cyprus, fulfilling the requirements set by the EU to begin membership talks. But Turkey made it clear the signing did not change its position over the divided island whose Greek-Cypriot government is viewed in Brussels as the sole legitimate authority. Ankara recognizes only a breakaway Turkish-Cypriot enclave in the north. In his speech, Rehn said the question of recognition of Cyprus had been discussed «extensively, intensively and even quite emotionally» at the December summit and that all 25 EU leaders agreed it was not a precondition to start talks. EU foreign ministers will discuss a framework for the negotiations when they hold an informal meeting in Britain on September 1 and 2. Rehn urged them to respect the pledge made to Turkey on the starting date for entry talks. Approval of the negotiating framework is the last formal step before talks can begin. It has to be endorsed unanimously, giving EU members a last chance to exercise their veto rights. «This (meeting) will be the right place and right time for all member states to express their views, honor their commitments, and carry out their responsibilities,» Rehn said. «By responsibility, I mean that Europe needs a stable, democratic and increasingly prosperous Turkey. It is in our strategic interest, and the negotiations are the crucial vehicle for enhancing this objective. The journey is as important as the destination.»