BRUSSELS (Reuters)–The European Commission has reminded Turkey that it must sign a document extending its customs union with the EU to cover Cyprus before it can begin membership talks with the bloc as planned on October 3.
"If Ankara dragged its feet for political reasons–the negotiations would not open," senior Commission official Jean-Christophe Filori told visiting Turkish journalists on Tuesday.
The move is highly sensitive in Turkey because it is seen by diplomats as tantamount to de facto recognition of the internationally backed Greek Cypriot government in Nicosia without a peace deal to reunite the divided island.
Turkey–which won its date to start long-delayed EU entry talks at a summit last December–recognizes only a breakaway Turkish Cypriot community in the north of Cyprus.
Asked what would happen if Turkey did not sign the protocol–Filori said: "If the delay is a result of political resistance (in Turkey)–yes it would be a problem and the negotiations would not start."
Filori is a senior aide to EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn–responsible for Turkey.
Turkish financial markets are acutely sensitive to any suggestion of problems in Turkey’s bid to join the EU.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan–aware of the high stakes involved–said last week there would be no delay in signing the document–though he gave no date.
"We are analyzing the situation with regard to international law and once we have made sure of our position–we will be in touch with the European Commission and we will make an effort to achieve a result as soon as possible," he told reporters in Davos–Switzerland–at the World Economic Forum.
"We would never want to extend the process," Erdogan said.
The Greek Cypriot government is viewed by the other 24 members of the EU as the sole legal representative of Cyprus–which joined the EU with nine other states in May 2004.
Filori said the EU had no plans to get directly involved in any revived diplomatic drive to reunite Cyprus–saying this would remain the responsibility of the United Nations.
A previous UN peace plan was defeated last year when the Greek Cypriots rejected it in a referendum shortly before joining the EU. The Turkish Cypriots had backed the plan.
Filori said a framework document establishing the structure for Turkey’s accession talks would be ready by June at the latest. He declined to say how long he thought the negotiations would last.
"Taking on the acquis communautaire (EU law) is a huge task and takes a huge amount of time," Filori said–referring to the tens of thousands of pages of European law which prospective members must adopt and implement.