Nicosia pressing EU over Turkey

BRUSSELS – Cyprus is trying to toughen a critical European Union report on Turkey’s membership bid to add an implicit threat to break off talks later this year, but Britain and the European Commission are resisting, according to the draft report obtained by Reuters. The proposed EU position for next week’s foreign ministers’ meeting with Turkey in Luxembourg criticizes the slow pace of reforms and persistent problems in human and minority rights, religious freedom and civilian control over the military. «The pace of change has slowed in the last year» since Turkey began accession negotiations, the EU draft lamented. While human rights violations were diminishing, «they continue to occur and there is an urgent need to both implement legislation already in force and, with respect to certain areas, to take further legislative initiatives,» it said. «As regards freedom of expression, serious concerns remain,» it said, noting that no progress had been observed on freedom of religious minorities. «Further efforts are needed to ensure full civilian control over the military,» it added, stressing that public statements by the military should only concern military matters. Armed forces chief of staff General Hilmi Ozkok called last month for demonstrations to defend Turkey’s secular order after a gunman assassinated a senior judge who had ruled against the wearing of the Muslim headscarf. Diplomats said Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul had been told to expect an outpouring of EU impatience at next Monday’s talks, but one said the Cypriot position could put the holding of the meeting in jeopardy. The 25 EU ambassadors will try to find a solution to Cyprus’s demands at a preparatory meeting tomorrow. The report showed Nicosia was seeking to establish a direct linkage between the advancement of the negotiations and Turkey’s obligation to open its ports and airports to traffic from Cyprus under an extension of its customs union with the bloc. Turkey, which has 35,000 troops in northern Cyprus, does not recognize the Greek-Cypriot government in Nicosia. It says it will open its ports only if the EU fulfills a pledge to end the economic isolation of northern Cyprus by allowing direct trade. Cyprus, which joined the 25-nation bloc in 2004, has blocked EU moves to ease direct trade with the Turkish Cypriots and the report showed it was demanding that Turkey takes further concrete steps to normalize bilateral relations with Nicosia. «The Cypriot delegation maintained a reserve, in view of the fact that some amendments it had proposed… had not been accepted. These proposals were opposed by the UK delegation and by the Commission,» a cover note with the EU document said. It showed that Cyprus wanted an explicit reference to a review of Turkey’s compliance with the demand to open its air and sea space to Cypriot aircraft and vessels this year. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said in an interview with Reuters in March that he was working to avoid a «train crash» with Turkey later in the year over the Cyprus issue. But EU and Turkish officials say a number of options are under consideration to prevent the issue derailing Turkey’s EU talks completely. These include referring the dispute to the European Court of Justice for a ruling or freezing parts of the accession process relating to the customs union, transport and maritime and air safety until Turkey complies, the officials said. (Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander.)

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