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Last Updated: Monday, 24 September 2007, 20:40 GMT 21:40 UK
Turkey gets back on the EU track
By Kirsty Hughes
Writer on European affairs

Turkey appears to have emerged from its simmering political crisis, with the successful installation of a new government and president.

Mosque in Istanbul
Brussels sees developments in Turkey as very positive
As a result, attention is now turning back towards Brussels, to see whether Turkey's stalled bid to join the EU club can gain new impetus, or whether it will hit fresh obstacles.

In Brussels, politicians and diplomats are cautiously optimistic that membership talks can move forward this autumn.

This positive mood is driven both by events in Turkey, and also by EU hopes that the Union has resolved its own internal crisis over the failed constitution.

Military worry

Gary Titley, leader of British Labour MEPs in the European Parliament, calls the recent political developments in Turkey "very positive", though he cautions that the future remains uncertain.

"Turkey has a newly elected government... with a strong electoral performance, and a prime minister who up until now has been very reform-minded and actively delivered what he promised," Mr Titley says.

Talk of a Christian club is manifest nonsense and unacceptable
Gary Titley, MEP
"The worry is how the military will respond... but I think they got their fingers burnt a bit, pre-election."

The European Commission will give its annual report on all the candidates for membership, including Turkey, at the start of November.

Turkey could be criticised for its lack of political reforms over the last year, so some EU diplomats and politicians are hoping that Ankara will rapidly bring forward certain key reforms - not least on freedom of speech and rights of religious minorities - rather than wrapping all reforms together in a longer constitutional process.

The European Parliament is also debating an annual resolution on the state of Turkey's membership application - with a vote due before the end of October.

Diplomats welcome the absence, so far, of some of the contentious phrasing seen in some previous parliamentary resolutions.

There is no demand that Turkey recognise the Armenian massacres of 1917 as "genocide" this time, for example.

But neither is there any direct reference to the goal of the talks being membership of the EU club - a reflection of the strong opposition to the idea in some quarters.

Wise people

"The [German] Christian Democrats are fervently opposed. The trouble is they express their opposition in a way most of us cannot accept - talk of a Christian club is manifest nonsense and unacceptable," says Gary Titley.

Nicolas Sarkozy
The French president wants to avoid provoking a major EU crisis
But it is France's President Nikolas Sarkozy who has been most vocal in his hostility to Turkey's eventual membership of the bloc in recent months.

In a wide-ranging foreign policy speech at the end of August, Mr Sarkozy indicated that negotiations with Turkey could proceed, but only if they were limited to areas that could lead equally to membership or to his preferred alternative of a "privileged partnership".

He also added a second condition, that the Union set up a group of "wise people" to look at the Union's future direction in the years 2020-2030.

EU diplomats see these demands as Mr Sarkozy's way of getting himself off the hook of his own electoral promises to oppose Turkish EU membership, while not provoking a major EU crisis.

But some also worry about how to handle France's implicit demand not to open talks on five or more areas of negotiation, or chapters, which Paris says only apply to full membership of the club.

A new chapter?

In June, French diplomats already blocked talks going forward on the single currency chapter, though notionally on technical grounds.

TURKEY'S PROGRESS
Chapters opened:
Science and research
Enterprise and industry
Statistics
Financial control
Chapters France may block:
Economic and monetary policy
Regional funds
Agricultural policy
Finances
Institutional issues
Chapters suspended over Cyprus:
Free movement of goods
Right of establishment and freedom to provide services
Financial services
Agriculture and rural development
Fisheries
Transport policy
Customs union
External relations
Other chapters on the French list are said to be those dealing with regional funds, agricultural policy, finances, and institutional issues (including voting powers).

So far, there has been no public confrontation or political discussion of this French blockage at EU foreign minister level.

Some diplomats hope that such confrontation can be avoided for now, as long as talks are successfully opened in one or more other areas of negotiation this autumn.

But with eight chapters already blocked due to a dispute over Turkey's failure to open its ports to Greek Cypriot vessels, the aim of building up momentum in the talks faces challenges.

And if talks do not move forward in the autumn, or the pile of chapters openly blocked by the French grows, then, as one diplomat puts it: "It is another ball game entirely."

For now, there are hopes that talks could open soon in the area of health and consumer protection.

Disenchantment

But with fellow candidate Croatia bounding ahead in its membership talks, and likely to open as many as seven new chapters this autumn, the slow pace of Turkey's talks will become only too obvious.

Meanwhile, the Turkish mood towards the EU remains disenchanted.

In Istanbul, Hakan Altinay, director of the Open Society Institute, says Turkish public opinion is deeply pessimistic on Turkey's eventual EU membership.

"This is related to the Cyprus impasse and to Sarkozy's statements," he says.

"It is difficult to conclude that we have seen the end of French manoeuvring."

And while he is optimistic about future Turkish reforms on free speech, and on tackling the problems in the Kurdish-dominated south-east of the country, he considers that "movement on Cyprus is unlikely".

But despite these doubts, the prospects for EU-Turkey talks are now brighter than at the start of the year.



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