NEWS

Turks mull French risk

ANKARA – What if France puts its foot down? Just eight weeks before the long-awaited launch of Turkey’s European Union entry talks, the question is haunting Ankara and fanning fears of a crisis. What if French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin really meant it when he said Turkey must recognize Cyprus before the talks start on October 3? What if France, backed perhaps by Cyprus and other Turkey-skeptical EU states, vetoes the negotiations? Britain, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, and the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body, say Turkey has done all it was required to do for the talks to start on time. But anxiety is growing and the stakes could not be higher. «There is confusion. We are still waiting for an explanation (from France),» said a Turkish diplomat, adding that Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul may travel to some EU capitals this month. Gloom is growing among political analysts and economists. «I believe the French are serious (about vetoing Turkey)… And Cyprus is gambling that Turkey is ready to make further concessions because delaying EU talks could trigger an economic crisis here,» said Hasan Unal of Ankara’s Bilkent University. With French officials on summer vacation, Turkey may have to wait until at least August 24 – when EU envoys in Brussels are due to discuss Turkey – for clarification and more probably until September 1-2, when EU foreign ministers meet in Wales. Turkey, backed by Britain and the Commission, insists it has cleared the final hurdle for the start of talks by signing a protocol late last month extending its customs union with the EU to include new members, including Cyprus. Cyprus factor But Ankara annoyed some EU member states by also issuing a declaration making clear the signing did not mean it now recognized the Greek-Cypriot government. Ankara says recognition can only follow a comprehensive peace accord for the island. Cyprus is a highly emotive issue in Turkey and many analysts say Turkey is ready to abandon its decades-old EU drive if the bloc, reneging on earlier commitments, insists on Ankara’s immediate recognition of the Greek-Cypriot administration. «If Cyprus recognition is made a condition for the talks, Turkey will refuse,» said Dogu Ergil of the TOSAM think tank. «Turkey will drift away from Europe… For most Turks, the EU’s behavior smacks of double standards,» said Ergil. Turkish decision-makers appear increasingly convinced that the EU drive will be delayed, or at least «should not be pursued with such rigor by Ankara because the eventual outcome is too uncertain,» said Suat Kiniklioglu of the German Marshall Fund. Last week’s resignation of Murat Sungar as head of Turkey’s Secretariat-General for EU Affairs reflects concerns that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is no longer seriously committed to the EU process, analysts said. Sungar, a veteran career diplomat, cited personal reasons for his decision, but analysts said he had been frustrated by slow progress in Turkey’s preparations for the October 3 talks. EU anchor Investors have so far been remarkably sanguine about Turkey’s EU headache, pushing the lira currency and asset prices to fresh highs in recent weeks. But economists say any serious threat to the October 3 start date would spark heavy selling. Simon Quijano-Evans, an emerging markets analyst at Bank Austria Creditanstalt, said the EU provided the main anchor for Turkish economic policy, along with the International Monetary Fund, which this year agreed on a new $10 billion (8.1-billion-euro) loan program. «We would expect a negative reaction from the markets to any postponement of EU talks. Foreign investors would see it as a risk to the reform process. The government would then have to show clearly it remained committed to economic reform,» he said. Bilkent’s Unal, a prominent Euro-skeptic, said the government had little room for maneuver after investing so much in the EU. «We will have a financial crisis, one way or another. Lots of the hot money flowing into Turkey right now could leave very quickly. The Greek Cypriots know all this and are playing for maximum concessions,» said Unal.