EU Urges Turkey to Forge Cyprus Ties to Revive Membership Talks

The European Union urged Turkey to normalize relations with Cyprus, amid concerns about rising tension between the two countries, to jump-start membership talks that stalled more than a year ago.

Turkey has made progress over the past year in its push to join the 27-nation bloc, the EU said today in an annual progress report. The European Commission, the EU executive arm that also oversees expansion, said Turkey needs to improve fundamental rights, particularly freedom of expression, to advance.

The pace of Turkey’s membership application depends on full implementation of a customs-union agreement that includes Cyprus, the EU said in Brussels. Turkey, which doesn’t recognize the Greek Cypriot government, has sent warships alongside a Turkish vessel that is exploring for natural gas off the divided Mediterranean island. It also threatened to freeze its EU ties if Cyprus takes on the bloc’s rotating presidency without a solution to the four-decade split.

“The accession negotiations with Turkey have regrettably not moved into any new areas for over a year,” the EU said in the report. “The pace of accession negotiations would gain new momentum if Turkey proceeded to the full implementation of its customs-union obligations with the EU, and made progress towards normalization of relations with Cyprus.”

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have repeatedly said Turkey would cease to have relations with the EU if Cyprus assumes the presidency in the second half of 2012 without a solution to reunify the island.

Rising Tensions

Since mid-September, tensions in the eastern Mediterranean have been rising, with Turkey responding in kind to Greek Cypriot drilling off the island’s southern coast. Noble Energy Inc., the U.S. firm that started drilling Sept. 18, found gas reserves, the Greek Cypriot Phileleftheros newspaper reported yesterday.

Cyprus split in 1974, when Turkey invaded in response to a coup by supporters of a union with Greece. Turkey is the only country to recognize a Turkish Cypriot administration in the island’s north, where it keeps thousands of troops. Greek Cypriots rejected a 2004 UN plan submitted to a popular vote on both sides of the island by three to one. Turkish Cypriots voted two to one in favor.

The EU said trials of writers and journalists, as well as limitations to Internet access, cause “serious concerns” about freedom of expression in Turkey.

Trade Accord

The bloc started talks in 13 of 33 policy areas as part of the membership negotiations. Discussions on one of the issues have been provisionally closed and talks on eight others can’t be opened until Turkey meets certain obligations, the EU said. That includes the so-called Ankara Protocol that would extend a trade accord with the EU to Cyprus. The bloc demands that Turkey open its ports and airports to traffic from Cyprus under the July 2005 protocol.

Turkey can overcome the “competitive pressure and market forces” in the EU and should speed up implementation of structural reforms to its economy, according to the report by Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule’s group. The country’s 8.9 percent economic growth last year was driven by domestic demand and its expansion has continued in 2011 as Turkey “strengthened its presence in new markets” and continued its integration with the EU, the group said.

“Turkey has become one of the fastest-growing economies in the world,” Egemen Bagis, a lawmaker heading Turkey’s newly created EU Affairs Ministry, said Sept. 30 in Strasbourg, France, where he was meeting with counterparts from the bloc. “There are still those who try to treat us as if we were the Turkey of the 1960s. We can give them the response they deserve with self-confidence because Turkey is quickly advancing on the path to become a global power.”

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