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EU resumes war of nerves on Turkey talks

October 3, 2005

By Marie-Louise Moller and Mark John

LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) – European Union foreign ministers
resumed a war of nerves over terms for the historic start of
membership talks with Turkey on Monday, hours before accession
negotiations were due to begin.

Austria has plunged the launch of the accession process for
the vast, poor, overwhelmingly Muslim country into doubt by
demanding Turkey be offered an alternative to full membership.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, arriving to chair a
second day of talks after only a couple of hours’ sleep, said
he was not certain the negotiations would begin at all on
Monday.

“I cannot say for certain that we will be able to make
progress,” he told reporters.

“It’s a matter of if — if we can reach agreement in these
discussions with Austria,” he added before going into a private
meeting with Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik.

Turkish financial markets weakened on the uncertainty in
Luxembourg, with the main share index down 1.5 percent and the
lira down almost 1 percent against the dollar. There was no
sense of panic, though failure of talks could deal a longer
term blow to political reform and foreign investment in Turkey.

A British official said that meeting made some progress
toward finding a formula that could win consensus among the 25
EU member states, but there was still work to be done.

With Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul cooling his
heels in Ankara awaiting an EU agreement on the negotiating
mandate, the planned 5 p.m. (1100 EDT) opening ceremony seemed
likely to be delayed.

Several ministers arriving for the talks sounded gloomy.
Denmark’s Per Stig Moeller said: “It’s a big problem.”

Asked how serious the damage would be to the EU if there
were no agreement on Monday, Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot
said: “It would certainly be a bad day. But we’ve had similar
crises before. We’ve found solutions before and we’ll find one
for Turkey.”

CROATIA POSTPONED

Ratcheting up pressure on Austria, Straw postponed a
planned review of Austrian neighbor Croatia’s progress toward
EU entry talks until the Turkey issue was sorted out.

“It is a frustrating situation, but I hope and pray that we
may be able to reach agreement,” Straw told a post-midnight
news conference after five hours of wrangling with Austria.

A Turkish official said nerves in Ankara were “extremely
stretched … Every minute that passes is making things more
bitter and it won’t be nice starting negotiations with all
these bruises.”

With Austrian voters overwhelmingly hostile to Turkish
entry, Plassnik waged a lone battle on Sunday night demanding
that the EU spell out an alternative to full membership.

Diplomats said the 24 other members insisted they could not
make any change to the central principle that the shared
objective of the negotiations would be accession.

“Isolation and pressure is never going to work in politics.
It’s not going to work inside the European Union, certainly
not. The Union should have and must have a different style,”
Plassnik told reporters in the early hours of Monday.

Asked whether Austria was prepared to veto the start of
talks, she said it took all 25 member states to agree.

WALK AWAY?

Outgoing German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer warned his
colleagues that Turkey might walk away if the EU watered down
the terms on offer any further.

“If you want to open negotiations, you have to remember we
have to have someone to open them with,” a diplomat quoted him
as telling the meeting.

The EU has already irked Ankara by demanding that it
recognize Cyprus soon and open its ports and airports to
traffic from the divided Mediterranean island.

The European Parliament compounded Turkish irritation last
week by saying Turkey must recognize the 1915 killings of
Armenians under Ottoman rule as an act of genocide before it
can join the wealthy European family.

EU diplomats had hoped Austria would ease its stance after

regional elections in Styria province on Sunday. Chancellor
Wolfgang Schuessel’s People’s Party lost power there for the
first time since 1945 despite his brinkmanship on Turkey.

Schuessel has informally linked the Turkish issue to a
demand that the EU open accession talks immediately with
Austria’s largely Roman Catholic neighbor, Croatia.

But those talks have been frozen until Zagreb satisfies
U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte that it is
cooperating fully in the hunt for a fugitive indicted
ex-general.




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