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EU Warns Turkey to Enforce Pact With Cyprus to Avert `Dead End'
2006-06-13 12:12:26

By James G. Neuger in Luxembourg

June 13 (Bloomberg) -- Turkey's bid to become a member of the European Union will break down unless its government lives up to a free-trade pact with Cyprus, EU foreign ministers warned.

After Turkey dropped a last-minute threat to boycott yesterday's first phase of entry talks, the EU said progress depends on Turkey meeting a pledge to open its harbors and airports to trade from Cyprus, an EU member since 2004.

"Turkey is expected to meet its obligations,'' EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told a Luxembourg news conference late yesterday. Rehn said he "underlined the necessity for Turkey to respect its commitments.''

Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation of 72 million people, is counting on the decade-plus EU entry marathon to boost living standards and attract foreign investment needed to slash a jobless rate of 11.9 percent.

Turkey and the 25-nation EU yesterday delayed a showdown over the membership terms until later this year by wrapping up talks on Turkey's science and research laws, the least controversial of 35 EU policy areas.

Looming over the talks is a threat by Cyprus, an island partly under Turkish military occupation, to put the process on hold until Turkey allows free trade with Cypriot planes and ships.

'Dead End'

"If there are no concrete steps here, there will be serious difficulties sooner or later,'' said Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, who chaired the negotiations. "There's a risk of running into a dead end.''

The next hurdle is an EU progress report due in October or November. Voicing "a number of concerns,'' Rehn said Turkey must make progress on press freedoms, end discrimination of non- Muslims and improve living conditions in the Kurdish southeast.

"Serious progress'' is needed, Rehn said. ``I trust this message will be taken seriously in Turkey.''

Kurdish Minority

During the past five years, Turkey has expanded rights for the nation's 12 million Kurds and reduced the influence of the military, which has toppled three governments in the past four decades.

The dispute over Cyprus, which came close to halting the EU entry bid last year, has flared up again as Turkey faces growing criticism from the EU over the treatment of political dissidents and crackdown on press freedoms.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Turkey risks provoking "lasting disturbances'' and told reporters: "We all need to make an effort to avoid a crash. We need clarity by the end of the year.''

The wrangle comes as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's popularity slumps amid attacks by Islamists, accelerating inflation and a drop in the Turkish lira. With a new round of parliamentary elections due next year, Erdogan's room to make concessions to the EU is limited.

The lira plunged 16 percent against the dollar in May on concern that political tensions may trigger early elections.

Plunging Popularity

Support for Erdogan's governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has fallen 10 percentage points since January to 24 percent, according to a survey by Sonar Arastirma AS conducted between May 20 and June 3. AKP won 34 percent of the vote in the November 2002 election.

Tensions with nationalist parties escalated on May 17, when a suspected Islamist militant shot dead a senior judge for defending a ban on teachers wearing the Islamic headscarf. The incident renewed concerns that Erdogan's party, rooted in an Islamic movement banned by the courts in 1997, is undermining Turkey's secular principles by relaxing laws against Muslim clothing.

Separately, the EU yesterday concluded the first phase of talks with Croatia, which started the entry process along with Turkey last year. The EU also signed a trade accord with Albania, a first step toward membership for that country.

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