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Europe

EU backs Turkish constitutional reforms, seeks to strengthen cooperation

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton held talks in Istanbul on the country's stalled membership bid and Turkey's growing regional diplomatic role. The visit is seen as a first step in a new cooperation with Turkey.

EU Foreign Affairs Chief Catherine Ashton and EU Commissioner Stefan Fuele with government officials in Istanbul

EU officials say they are committed to Ankara's EU membership bid

Speaking at a joint news conference in Istanbul, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton, appeared determined to put on a display of unity.

She was accompanied by the EU's enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fule, for talks on Turkey's membership bid with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and the country's chief EU negotiator, Egemen Bagis.

Ashton began by praising the Ankara government for its recent constitutional reform package which she said was in line with EU requirements.

She reiterated that Turkey is an "important partner" for the European Union, particularly in foreign policy.

"We both share the same goal, namely securing peace stability and security in the region and beyond," Ashton said. "We have constantly been looking at ways and strengthen our cooperation and improve of the coordination of our efforts."

Zero doubt policy

The EU opened accession talks with Turkey in 2005, but the process has moved slowly amid French and German opposition to the mainly Muslim country's membership and the sluggish pace of reform in Ankara.

Road sign with EU and Turkish symbols

Membership talks are at a crossroads

An EU statement before the meeting said the main objective was to "reaffirm the EU's commitment to Turkey and explore ways how the EU and Turkey can enhance cooperation in the region."

European Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule acknowledged the need to jump start accession talks with Turkey.

"There should be a zero doubt policy about our commitment, we will be looking at ways how to gear up the speed of the accession process. No one is happy with the current speed of the accession process," the EU commissioner said.

France has vetoed many of the membership chapters Turkey needs to complete in order to become a member. The Turkish minister responsible for its membership bid, Ergemen Bagis, said this was "unacceptable."

"It's unacceptable that Turkey opens only one membership chapter every six months. We are now facing vetoes on 18 membership chapters," he said.

"This is unacceptable for the Turkish people, the Turkish government and should be unacceptable to our friends in the European Union," added Bagis.

Cyprus remains an obstacle

Last month, talks began on a new policy area, food safety, bringing the total number of chapters Turkey has managed to open to 13 out of 35.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's reforms receive EU backing

Eight chapters remain frozen as a sanction for Turkey's refusal to open its sea and air ports to Cyprus, an EU member that Ankara does not recognise, owing to the island's 36-year division between its Greek and Turkish communities.

The United States and some European officials have charged that the EU's failure to fully embrace Turkey is behind a perceived shift in the country's foreign policy towards the East.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused Europe last month of "refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought," an argument that was later endorsed by Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.

The accusations were raised last month after Turkey voted against fresh UN sanctions on Iran over its controversial nuclear programme and plunged into a deep crisis with one-time ally Israel after nine Turks were killed in an Israeli operation on a Gaza-bound aid ship.

"Turkey has recently started to become more assertive in its foreign policy. We welcome the increasingly important role of Turkey in the region. In this context we will also look at the ways in which the EU and Turkey can enhance cooperation," the EU statement quoted Ashton as saying.

Author: Nigel Tandy

Editor: Catherine Bolsover

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