European Union foreign ministers will consider Monday whether to slow down membership talks with Turkey for failing to normalize trade with Cyprus, amid deep divisions over what action to take.
Turkey's EU bid has never been smooth sailing
In yet another crisis to dog Turkey since it began its EU talks in October 2005, the ministers will examine a recommendation to freeze eight of the 35 negotiating chapters that candidates have to complete before joining. The recommendation, by the European Commission last week, came because Turkey refuses to open its harbors and airports to Greek Cypriot craft as it is obliged to do under a customs agreement with the 25 country bloc.
Indeed Turkey refuses to recognize the EU Mediterranean island member outright, and it is the only country to endorse the Turkish Cypriot state it created after invading northern Cyprus in 1974, in response to a coup.
In a last-ditch effort to save its EU talks, the fruit of a decades-long quest to join Europe's rich club, Turkey offered Thursday to open a port and possibly an airport to Cyprus. But the oral offer, which perplexed ambassadors trying to outline an agreement for the ministers to endorse on Monday, was rejected by the EU's Finnish presidency, amid doubts about what Ankara expected in return.
Some EU members are skeptical about integrating Turkey into the bloc
"What Turkey has said is not enough and of course the Union will make the decision how to continue the negotiation process," Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen said Friday.
"It does not mean the full implementation of the Ankara Protocol but I feel that it is very positive," he said, referring to the protocol that extended Turkey's customs accord to the EU's 10 newest members, including Cyprus.
Freeze could spark progress on other issues
Turkey's candidacy has long divided the Europeans. With a socially conservative society and agrarian-based economy, it would become one of the EU's most populous states, giving it more voting rights even than states like Britain, France or Italy.
But no one denies its strategic importance, led as it is by a moderate Islamic government and straddled between Europe, the Middle East and the volatile Caucasus region.
Austria and France -- not to mention Cyprus and its ally Greece -- would prefer at best a "privileged partnership" with the mainly Muslim but secular nation and have led calls for the process to be slowed down.
Yet the EU membership road was always going to be a long one. Turkey's accession talks will take at least a decade if not much longer, and it has no guarantee that when it arrives at Europe's gates it will even be allowed in.
In reality, Turkey's membership talks have moved little in the last six months and a freeze -- however many chapters it might involve -- might paradoxically spark progress on the other policy chapters.
Agreement expected Monday?
In any case, Monday's talks will not be easy as any decision to slow down the process has to be made unanimously by the 25 members.
Finnish Premier Vanhanen doesn't want the issue of Turkey to overshadow the last days of his country's EU presidency
"Between the member states there are quite big differences," Vanhanen said. "There are member countries who are actually demanding more than the commission is proposing, and then there are member states who think that there should be less than eight chapters that should not be opened."
But Finland has vowed that the issue must not dominate the final summit of its six month EU presidency, which will be taken up by Germany on Jan. 1.
Draft conclusions from the summit -- starting on Thursday -- seen by AFP have a paragraph in brackets marked: "The European Council endorses the Council conclusions of 11 December 2006 on the accession negotiations with Turkey."