Tensions between key EU member states over Turkey's bid to join the bloc threaten to cloud a meeting of its foreign ministers starting Thursday, only weeks before Ankara is due to start EU entry talks.
Tension in lead-up to membership talks
"Turkey is a key political issue," said one British official ahead of the EU talks. "We know that there are concerns, but that doesn't change the fact the talks are going to start in October."
EU leaders gave the vast Muslim state a green light last December to start entry talks despite its refusal to recognize the government of Cyprus, which was among 10 countries that joined the EU last year.
But its hopes of one day joining the bloc were dealt a severe blow in May when French and Dutch voters -- many citing opposition to Turkish EU entry -- sparked an unprecedented crisis by rejecting the EU constitution.
Cyprus tension surfaces again
Ankara fueled fresh concern after it appended a declaration to its signature of an amended customs accord with the enlarged EU in July, underlining that it still does not recognize Cyprus. The island has been divided since 1974 when the Turkish military occupied the northern third of the island in reaction to a pro-Greek coup in the south.
French President Jacques Chirac has sought to soften the hardline position adopted by his prime minister
Leading the expressions of caution about Turkey and the EU has been France, whose Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said on August 2 that talks could not start with Turkey until it recognizes Cyprus.
Paris seems to have softened its position since then, with President Jacques Chirac saying he will stick by commitments. But diplomats say France is still pushing for "more binding language" demanding that Turkey recognize Cyprus.
EU diplomats said that the ministers were likely to issue a declaration making it clear that the customs union had to be implemented without discrimination by member states.
"There will probably be a discussion tomorrow by ministers, probably on the basis of a text," one said. "We will see if (the declaration) is more precise," said another, particularly on "access to ports" for Cypriot ships.
Merkel's "partnership" angers Turks, allies
The talks will no doubt be further complicated by fresh criticism from German chancellor candidate Angela Merkel, who favors a "privileged partnership" with Turkey, but not full membership.
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul Wednesday dismissed the idea as "illegitimate and immoral" in a newspaper interview and said Ankara would not accept anything less than full membership
His country got full backing from Britain, which has argued both on economic and geopolitical reasons for including Turkey in the EU.
"We will open accession negotiations with Turkey" on Oct. 3, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in a letter of invitation to his EU counterparts ahead of the talks.
Is Croatia next?
Croatia's Foreign Affairs and European Integration Minister Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, right, shakes hands with Luxembourg Foreign Minister and President of the EU Council Jean Asselborn during earlier talks.
Foreign ministers will also be discussing Iran, which this month resumed nuclear activities in defiance of an agreement with European negotiators, and immediate EU expansion talks for Croatia.
Croatian Foreign Minister Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, whose country's hopes of starting EU entry talks in March were delayed due to lack of help in finding a key fugitive war crimes suspect.
There has been some suggestion that the British EU presidency -- which plans to hold a new "task force" meeting on Croatia this month -- might be willing to soften the stance on Zagreb in exchange for less pressure over Turkey.
A spokesman denied any such linkage. "The two issues are not linked. Turkey has met its criteria and negotiations should begin on Oct. 3. Croatia has not met the criteria," he said.