October 3, 2005

EU on precipice over starting Turkey talks

By Marie-Louise Moller and Mark John

LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - Britain said the European Union was
on the "edge of a precipice" on Monday over terms for historic
membership talks with Turkey, and the Muslim country accused
critics of hindering a alliance of civilizations.

EU president Britain said it was no longer certain the
talks would start at all on Monday. Austria was sticking to
demands that the vast, poor, Muslim country be offered an
alternative to full membership and Turkey raised a new
potential obstacle.

Diplomats said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had
told the 24 other EU foreign ministers upon resuming talks
after only a couple of hours' sleep: "Yes, we are near (to a
deal) but we are also on the edge of a precipice.

"If we go the right way we reach the sunny uplands. If we
go the wrong way, it could be catastrophic for the European

After meeting Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik and
speaking by telephone with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah
Gul, Straw told reporters he was by no means sure the talks
would start as planned on Monday.

"We are at a difficult stage in these negotiations and I
cannot say what the outcome will be," he said.

Turkey's share index fell 2.3 percent from Friday's close
after his comments. The lira and bonds also weakened.

In Ankara, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told a meeting of
the ruling AK party that Turkey was not prepared to compromise
further on the conditions for opening the long-awaited talks.

"Those in the EU who cannot digest Turkey being in the EU
are against the alliance of civilizations. What I declare is
this: the costs resulting from all this will be paid by them."
Turkey has frequently portrayed its entry to the EU as a way of
bridging a gap between the Christian and Islamic worlds and
easing tensions that may have fostered Islamic militancy.

Diplomats said Turkey had raised new objections to a clause
in the talks mandate that stipulates Ankara may not block
accession of EU states to international organizations and

Turkish nationalists and the powerful military argued that
might prevent Turkey blocking a divided Cyprus from joining
NATO, but Straw and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana
insisted the clause could not impinge on sovereign defense


EU officials said the planned 5 p.m. (1100 EDT) opening
ceremony was bound to be delayed, if it happened at all.

Diplomats said German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told
ministers: "Time is running out. We have got to get this right.
We seem so close. We cannot let this opportunity slip away."

Failure to start the talks could deal a blow to political
reform and foreign investment in Turkey, a NATO member which
straddles Southeastern Europe and the Middle East.

It would also deepen a sense of crisis in Europe, after
referendum defeats for the draft EU constitution in France and
the Netherlands, and an acrimonious failure in June to agree on
a long-term budget for the enlarged bloc.

"If there is no deal, my personal judgment is that we are
increasingly starting to look like a Union of failing states
because we cannot make any decisions," Latvian Foreign Minister
Artis Pabriks told Reuters.

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

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 to demand that
the EU spell out an explicit alternative to full membership.

But diplomats said Vienna dropped its objection on Monday
to a key phrase that the shared aim of the talks was accession,
and they hoped Austrian concerns could be overcome by adding
wording underlining the need for the EU to be able to absorb


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 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.