Last-minute talks on Turkish membership stall

The Independent,UK
03 October 2005

By Stephen Castle in Luxembourg

Eleventh-hour talks to agree on the launch of EU membership negotiations
with Turkey remained deadlocked early this morning as Austria held out
despite massive pressure and hours of frantic diplomacy.

After a hectic series of meetings, Britain, which holds the presidency of
the EU, postponed discussions until 9.30am today, just hours before formal
negotiations with Turkey were due to begin.

Going into last night's crucial meeting, Austria was still blocking the
start of talks, calling for consideration of a possible alternative to EU
membership for Turkey. Such demands are anathema to Ankara, which first
sought to join the bloc more than four decades ago.

During the course of a dramatic evening, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw,
held a series of face to face meetings with his Austrian counterpart, Ursula
Plassnik. Meanwhile Tony Blair spoke by phone to Austria's Chancellor,
Wolfgang Schüssel, and the Europe minister, Douglas Alexander, called the
Turkish Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, who was waiting to learn whether to
make the journey to Luxembourg to start talks.

Germany, France and Greece all backed British efforts to launch the talks
with Turkey today. But Austria continued to press for changes to the
language of the negotiating mandate.

It remained unclear whether there was enough progress to clinch a deal.
Asked about the prospects, a senior official replied: "God knows." As talks
broke just after midnight Mr Straw said: "It is a frustrating situation but
I hope and pray that we may be able to reach agreement."
Amid mounting tension, supporters of Turkey's accession argued that a rebuff
to Ankara would provoke a crisis in the EU's relations with the Muslim

The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking at a resort
outside Ankara, said Europe was at a historic crossroad. "Either it will
show political maturity and become a global power, or it will end up a
Christian club," he said.

"No EU decision will deviate Turkey from its course" toward further
democracy and reforms, Mr Erdogan added. "We will, however, be saddened that
a project for the alliance of civilisations will be harmed."

Asked if a deal could be reached, Ms Plassnik, replied: "I hope so. We will
listen to each other, come towards each other in a good European spirit. "
None of the main Austrian political parties backs Turkish accession. But
despite his tough stance on Turkey, Mr Schüssel, appeared to have suffered a
blow in regional elections in Austria yesterday.

Turkey has been knocking on Europe's door for decades, and has instituted a
massive reform programme to get to the point of opening membership talks.
Originally scheduled for this morning, the negotiations are now due to begin
in the late afternoon.

However Mr Gul has made it clear that he will not make the journey to
Luxembourg if the negotiating text is deemed unsatisfactory. Mr Erdogan
phoned the Austrian Chancellor on Friday to make clear that second-class
status was not acceptable to Turkey.

If they open today, the negotiations with Ankara will take a decade and at
least two EU nations will have to hold referendums before giving Turkey the
green light to join. Even starting the talks has proved highly
controversial, despite all 25 member nations agreeing last December that
they should begin today.

Since then the referendum "no" votes on the EU constitution in France and
the Netherlands have changed the climate, and surveys show the majority of
the EU population against Turkish accession.
Austria was seeking to delete a passage in the negotiating mandate which
states that the objective of the talks is accession. Vienna's preference is
for the inclusion of an alternative, "privileged partnership".

History ensures Austrians remain bitterly opposed

Across Europe, opinion may be divided on whether Turkey should be allowed to
enter the EU. But in Austria there is little sign of a debate because
history ensures that the issue touches the rawest of nerves.

In 1683 the Ottoman army of Kara Mustafa Pasha was routed at the gates of
Vienna in a defeat that marked the last Turkish effort to take the city. All
around the Austrian capital are reminders of the battle and so strong is the
event in the national consciousness that newspapers have characterised
Ankara's EU bid as a new siege of Vienna.

To complicate matters further Austria is a strong supporter of (Christian)
Croatia, which also wants to join the EU. This step has been held up because
of a row over Zagreb's lack of co-operation in surrendering a suspected war
criminal, Ante Gotovina.

Austrians feel it would be wrong to start talking to Turkey while holding
back on Croatia. Vienna's critics suggest darkly that Austria's own past may
prompt it to worry less about punishing war crimes than other nations.

Taking a tough stance has proved politically popular for the Austrian
Chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, but his party was crushed in regional
elections yesterday.

Elsewhere in Europe, the echoes of history have played a part in the debate.
France, home to Europe's largest Armenian population, has sometimes had
difficult relations with Turkey. In 2001 its parliament formally recognised
the Armenian genocide (during the collapse of the Ottoman empire) provoking
fury from Ankara.

Ironically Ankara's biggest rival, Greece, has not sought to hold up talks,
believing that a Turkey inside the EU would be more modern, restrained and
susceptible to outside influence.

Stephen Castle