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EU summit unlikely to heal rift between Turkey and Cyprus

Turkey's refusal to allow Cypriot ships and aircraft into its ports threatens to derail its European Union membership ambitions, which are up for discussion during the EU summit that begins Thursday.

An old Cyprus Airways plane stands behind barbed wire in the buffer zone dividing the Greek and Turkish Cypriot areas of Nicosia

Turkey was supposed to allow Cypriot planes and boats into its ports by 2010

The EU is set to open membership talks with Turkey in one area this year - the environment - but negotiations on eight other policy areas are frozen because Turkey has refused to improve relations with Cyprus.

A little-known agreement Turkey signed with the EU in 2005, known as the Ankara protocol, has the potential to be a diplomatic time bomb, set to explode at the end of the year. The agreement set forth several obligations that Turkey must fulfill in order for its membership bid to move forward. One of those obligations requires Turkey to open its ports and airports to all EU members by 2010 - including the island nation of Cyprus.

Cyprus, which joined the EU in 2004, has been divided since 1974, when Turkey began occupying the northern part of the country in response to a Greek-organized coup. The Greek Cypriot government based in Nicosia is the one recognized by the international community. The Turkish Cypriot territory in the north is only recognized by Turkey.

Turkey has steadfastly refused to open its ports and airports to Cyprus unless the EU drops its embargo against Turkish Cypriots.

Suat Kiniklioglu, spokesman for the Turkish parliament's foreign affairs committee, said Brussels had promised to end the embargo if Turkish Cypriots supported a United Nations proposal for reunification. They did - but their counterparts in Cyprus did not.

"Our policy is conditioned by what Mr. Gunter Verheugen and other officials of the Union have told us - that direct trade with Turkish Cyprus would be established," Kiniklioglu told Deutsche Welle. "That did not happen. As long as that does not happen, there is no way we are going to open the ports to Greek Cyprus."

Cyprus is vetoing any proposals to ease the embargo. EU officials say that there is no legally binding commitment to Turkey on the subject.

The clock is ticking

Richard Howitt, a member of the European Parliament's committee on Turkey, said the increasingly bitter dispute threatens the very future of Turkey's accession bid.

"I was very depressed and pessimistic earlier in the year that this would be used as an excuse by perhaps Germany, France or Austria to stop the talks altogether," Howitt said in an interview with Deutsche Welle. "But now the diplomatic maneuverings I am seeing suggest to me that ...the European Union is not going to pull the plug on Turkey, because not simply would that stop Turkey's aspirations, it would stop peace and reconciliation on Cyprus, too."

With such high stakes, postponing the decision will be an attractive option for leaders at this week's summit. But they will have to remember that although some progress has been made in Cyprus' reunification talks, many of the key issues remain unresolved. With only a few months before the dovish president of the Turkish Cypriot community faces elections, time could be running out.

Dorian Jones/svs
Editor: Trinity Hartman

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