Turkey left out in cold as Austria digs in heels over EU entry talks

The Times, UK
October 03, 2005


TURKEY'S 40-year campaign to join the European Union is on the brink of
collapse after emergency talks between EU foreign ministers broke up without
agreement just hours before entry negotiations were due to start.

Amid frenetic diplomacy and warnings of dire consequences if the EU rejected
Turkey, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, chaired fraught negotiations
through the night in an attempt to stop Austria from torpedoing the
membership talks.

Failure to secure the start of Turkey's entry into the Union will be
humiliating for Tony Blair, who made it one of the priorities of his
six-month presidency of the EU.

Initial optimism gave way to gloom as the meeting of European foreign
ministers ground on through a series of informal and formal meetings, with
diplomats reporting no progress.

A dinner of EU foreign ministers overran by two hours as EU countries put
pressure on Austria to back down. By the early hours, tempers were flaring
and British diplomats stormed around the EU complex with long faces.

The talks are due to start again this morning, but hopes of securing a deal
were fading last night. A clearly exhausted Mr Straw said: `We have been
unable to reach agreement. It's a frustrating situation, but I hope and pray
we may be able to reach agreement. We have a situation where 24 have decided
to move forward and one has not. It is not the first time that has happened,
and I am sure it will not be the last.'

A review of Croatia's progress towards starting membership talks - an issue
close to Austria's heart - due to be held today has been postponed by
Britain, as holder of the EU presidency, until the mandate for Turkey is

Membership talks with Turkey, which were agreed in principle last December,
had been due to start at a special ceremony this afternoon, beginning a
process that is expected to take ten years.

Austria has demanded that Turkey be offered a `privileged partnership' as an
alternative to full membership, an offer that Turkey has made clear is
unacceptable. Although Austria stands alone on the issue, it has the power
of veto.

Previously agreed points were being called into question as Turkey started
raising objections to a demand that it must stop vetoing Cyprus's membership
of Nato.

In a final attempt to change Austria's mind, Mr Blair telephoned Wolfgang
Schüssel, the Austrian Chancellor, and Mr Straw held repeated meetings with
Ursula Plassnik, the Austrian Foreign Minister, to warn her of serious
consequences if the EU rejected the Muslim country. Recep Tayyip Erdogan,
the Prime Minister of Turkey, also phoned Herr Schüssel to try to reach a

Before the talks, Mr Straw gave warning about the impact it would have on
relations between Islam and the West if Austria wielded its veto: `This is a
crucial meeting for the future of the European Union. We're concerned about
a so-called clash of civilisations. We are concerned about this
theological-political divide, which could open up even further the boundary
between so-called Christian-heritage states and those of Islamic heritage.
The heavy responsibility rests on all member states.'

Mr Erdogan told Turkish television: `Either the EU will decide to become a
world force and a world player, which would show its political maturity, or
it will limit itself to a Christian club.'

Opponents of Turkish membership claim that the country is too big, too poor
and too culturally different to join the EU. With the EU in crisis over the
rejection of its constitution by French and Dutch voters, they claim that it
is not capable of absorbing the Muslim country.

Opinion polls show that the majority of EU citizens are opposed to Turkey's
membership, with opposition particularly high in Austria, France, Germany
and the Netherlands.

Frau Plassnik said: `We should now listen to the concerns voiced by so many
people across Europe.'
Turkey's moderate Islamist Government has made joining the EU its top
political priority, and completed a feverish round of reforms - including
giving more rights to its Kurdish minority and abolishing the death sentence
- to meet the criteria for starting entry talks. To join the EU, it would
need to adopt about 80,000 pages of European legislation, which is expected
to take a decade.

Rejection at the last minute would be a serious political blow. Abdullah
Gul, the Turkish Foreign Minister, summoned his political advisers last
night and told Mr Straw he would not fly to Luxembourg until he had seen the
negotiating mandate approved by the 25-nation bloc.

Mr Gul has also made clear that if the talks do not start now, Turkey will
not come back to the table. `I cannot see them happening again,' he told the
Yeni Safak newspaper.

European diplomats believe that Austria's hardline stance is partly dictated
by internal politics, with 80 per cent of Austrians and all main political
parties opposing Turkey's membership.