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Europe

Turkey's PM Presses for EU Membership, Pipeline Alternative

Turkey's prime minister and the head of the European Commission on Monday urged one another to do more to speed up Turkey's progress towards the European Union, especially in the field of energy security.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso

Erdogan and Barroso failed to make much progress on the question of Turkey's accession

"The (accession) negotiation process has some political obstacles, and these should be removed," Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters.

It has become "almost routine" for the EU to open talks on harmonizing Turkish and EU legislation in just two areas, or "chapters," out of a grand total of 35, every six months, he said.

But European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said that the speed of talks depended on Turkey's own ability to reform.

"For further progress, Turkey needs to meet the technical benchmarks to open chapters," he said. The EU's executive "will do all it can" to help the Czech government, which currently holds the bloc's rotating presidency, to open more chapters, he said.

Erdogan was in Brussels for talks with Barroso and the EU's highest foreign-policy official, Javier Solana, on issues ranging from Turkey's EU accession hopes to the Middle East peace process.

The talks dealt "extensively" with energy issues, especially the planned Nabucco pipeline, which the EU hopes will one day bring natural gas from Azerbaijan to Europe, Barroso said.

Turkey "gives full support all the time" to the project, and "will make the necessary investments" to make sure that the pipeline -- planned to carry up to 30 billion cubic meters of gas per year, or roughly 6 per cent of EU consumption -- succeeds, Erdogan said.

Alternative gas pipeline used as leverage

However, Erdogan threatened to review Turkey's position on the Nabucco gas pipeline if its EU accession talks were blocked.

The warning came amid Europe's worst gas crisis caused by a dispute between Russia and Ukraine that has led to gas shortages across the continent.

Two oil tankers, Ottoman Dignity, Turkish, right, and Sandra Tapias, Spanish, wait at Ceyhan oil terminal on Turkey's Mediterranean coast

Turkey is looking to capitalize on recent gas disputes

The crisis has sharpened attention on the need to reduce Europe's dependence on Russian gas, with the proposed Nabucco pipeline that would carry supplies from the Caspian Sea or Middle East via Turkey to Austria seen as critical.

Nabucco is a proposed 3,400-kilometer (2,112-mile) pipeline between Turkey and Austria that would transport up to 31 billion cubic meters of gas each year.

The pipeline currently has six shareholders -- OMV of Austria, MOL of Hungary, Transgaz of Romania, Bulgargaz of Bulgaria, Botas of Turkey and RWE of Germany -- but progress has so been slow-moving because of the number of approvals and agreements needed between the countries concerned.

Ministers from the six countries are set to meet in Budapest on January 26-27 and the head of the project, Reinhard Mitschek, hopes for a final green light this year.

Russia and Italy have put forward a rival pipeline project of their own, called South Stream.

One of the main hurdles to Nabucco has been financing.

The consortium recently raised the estimated cost to about eight billion euros ($10.7 billion) compared with the initial projection of 4.4 billion euros.

For Nabucco to be profitable, Europe would have to find 30 billion cubic meters of gas each year from countries such as Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Iraq, experts say.

"If we're faced with a situation where the energy chapter is blocked then we would review our position" on Nabucco, Erdogan said in Brussels.

Cyprus remains a sticking point to accession

Turkey's bid to join the European Union requires 35 chapters covering key areas of governance to be opened and agreed, with energy currently closed because of objections by Cyprus, which joined the EU in 2004.

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, right, with Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The EU's Barroso wants the Cyprus dispute solved first

"The other side ought to be fair in his treatment," said Erdogan. "They should not prefer southern Cyprus, located far away from Europe and only a few hundred thousand people, compared with Turkey with 70 million people."

He added: "We have to talk about the facts openly. Southern Cyprus is putting pressure so that some chapters are not opened, like energy."

Turkey refuses to endorse the internationally-recognized Greek Cypriot government and instead recognizes the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north of the island.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkey seized its northern third in response to an Athens-engineered Greek Cypriot coup aimed at uniting the Mediterranean island with Greece.

"It is important that Turkey supports" the ongoing process of reconciliation between the two halves of Cyprus, Barroso said.

Turkey wants to see a "lasting and fair settlement" to the dispute, and is giving "our full support" to the president of the Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus, an entity which only Turkey has recognized internationally, Erdogan said.

Erdogan added he hoped to see "a leap" in Turkey's efforts to join the European Union in 2009.

Opposition to Turkey's membership endures

Some EU nations firmly oppose the idea of Turkey, a mainly Muslim country of 70 million, joining the bloc amid misgivings among voters. France favors a special relationship that stops short of full membership for Turkey.

Erdogan criticized negative comments about his country in the EU that meant public support for joining the EU was waning.

"Our people are reacting to some negative declarations from the EU side which question Turkey's accession to the EU. But we're very decisive, it's a top priority issue," Erdogan said.

"We don't ask for special treatment, but a fair and equal treatment. We are not here to be a burden for the EU we want to share the burden," he added.

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