LUXEMBOURG (AFP)–The European Union clinched a last-minute deal to start detailed membership talks with Turkey–overcoming Cypriot objections and narrowly avoiding a new crisis for the beleaguered bloc.
But EU Foreign Ministers warned that tension between Turkey and Cyprus risks clouding the talks so long as Ankara refuses to normalize ties with the Greek Cypriot Government in Nicosia.
"Failure to implement its obligations in full will affect the overall progress in the negotiations," it said in a carefully-worded compromise formula to appease Nicosia and keep pressure on Ankara.
The deal paved the way for the vast–mostly-Muslim state to start concrete talks eight months after it secured a landmark green light from the EU.
"It’s good that the EU found a way out of this situation," said Turkey’s ambassador to the EU–Volkan Bozkir. "The good thing is we have achieved a result and the difficulties have been eliminated."
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul–who had insisted on staying in Ankara until a deal was reached–was expected to fly into Luxembourg later in the day for a formal ceremony opening the talks.
Ankara was approved to start accession talks with the EU last October–but only after allaying critics who wanted Turkey to be offered a "privileged partnership" rather than full EU membership.
But Cyprus–which as a member state has power of veto–had been refusing to agree to the first detailed talks until Turkey recognized the Greek Cypriot Government and fully implemented the so-called Ankara protocol.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkey occupied the northern third in response to an Athens-engineered Greek Cypriot coup seeking to unite the island with Greece.
Monday’s talks were on science and research–the first and possibly the least contentious of 35 policy "chapters" to be covered during negotiations with Ankara which are expected to last at least a decade.
The Greek-Cypriot Government had pressed for the accord with Turkey to include an explicit reference to the need for Ankara’s recognition–and ratification of the Ankara pact to allow Cypriot ships and planes into Turkey.
But other EU states had argued for simply a reference in the text to an EU declaration made last September which itself set out in details the deman’s.
In the event–the key paragraph at the center of the diplomatic dispute steered a fine line between the two versions–and included the clear warning to Ankara.
French Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy echoed the warning to Turkey–saying: "If at any moment the (EU) commission judges that the criteria are not met we should not be afraid to say it."
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan shrugged off the threat–referring dismissively to "a part of Cyprus."
"Currently I do not believe… members of the European Union would pay a lot of attention to that veto of a part of Cyprus," he said–speaking during a visit to Croatia.
More broadly–Turkey’s EU hopes have been seriously clouded by the institutional turmoil into which the European bloc was plunged last year–when French and Dutch voters torpedoed the EU’s hard-fought constitution.
Public skepticism over EU enlargement–and specifically over plans to take in country so vastly different from mainland Europe–was widely cited as a reason for the "no" votes.
"We’re in a different game now. Everyone is much more cautious," said one diplomat.