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EU requirements dismay Turkish officials
Updated: 2004-12-17 21:21

BRUSSELS, Belgium - Turkish officials expressed dismay Friday over a European Union offer to open membership talks that required Turkey to recognize Cyprus. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was considering his country's response.

On Thursday, the 25 EU leaders agreed at their two-day summit to begin membership talks with the Turks in October. But they linked the talks to what effectively would be Turkish recognition of the Greek Cypriot-led government on the divided Mediterranean island.

Ankara had hoped for an April start date and opposes an early recognition of Cyprus. The Europeans proposed that Turkey sign an accord expanding its existing customs union with the EU to include the 10 new members that joined in May including Cyprus.

The Europeans said that would satisfy the demand for recognition. They wanted the Turks to initial the customs union agreement Friday and then sign it before accession talks begin next year.

But the Turks believed even that step went too far.

"The mood in the Turkish delegation is one of disappointment," an Erdogan aide told reporters as the Turkish leader prepared to meet Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, the summit host. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity.

To win over the Turks, EU officials said Balkenende was redrafting the statement on the customs union formula.

Differences over the decades-long issue of Cyprus, split between Greek and Turkish communities, have long been a source of irritation between Turkey and Western Europe.

But Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told reporters Thursday that recognition of Cyprus, "either directly or indirectly," was "out of the question."

Erdogan and Balkenende failed to reach agreement on the start date during talks that lasted into early Friday after the EU made its offer.

"We realized very big issues are at stake," Balkenende said.

In the draft of a summit statement, the EU leaders urged Turkey to stay the course on political reforms and push for "zero tolerance" of torture and mistreatment.

Membership talks will be "open-ended," meaning they will not automatically lead to membership, though that is the goal. If the talks fail to lead to full membership, the EU will not abandon Ankara but "anchor Turkey in European structures," according to the draft text.

The draft also makes clear that negotiations may be stopped if Turkey backslides and does not push through the economic and political reforms that are needed to get in shape for EU membership.

Earlier Thursday, Erdogan told reporters he expected the Cyprus issue to be resolved Friday, and EU officials sought to dispel any hint that the offer might be rejected.

Arriving for the Friday summit session, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said he was optimistic a deal could be reached "on the last remaining barriers."

But Serdar Denktash, foreign minister of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state and son of Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, said he didn't think it was possible to resolve the Cyprus impasse in just 10 months.

Cyprus has been split into a Turkish Cypriot north and an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south since 1974, when Turkey invaded in response to an Athens-backed coup aiming to unite the island with Greece.

Turkey is the only country that recognizes the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north.

"The European Union has opened its door to Turkey ... making a balanced offer," Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission (news - web sites), said Thursday. "I genuinely believe this is an offer that Turkey should be glad to accept."

Critics also fear opening the door to a populous, mostly Muslim country would profoundly alter the 25-nation bloc's European and Christian character at a time when many Europeans are questioning multiculturalism.

The Turks have warned the bloc against imposing too many onerous conditions, and many of them fear membership would threaten their own Muslim traditions.

Barroso had said Turkey cannot join the EU without recognizing all member states including Cyprus and urged Ankara to make a gesture "sooner rather than later."

"We have given Turkey enough time to approve in its parliament the possibility of recognizing Cyprus," Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said. "To enter into a family you have to recognize all members of the family."

Even if membership talks begin, it could take 10 to 15 years for Turkey to join.

Admitting Turkey would extend the EU's borders to the frontiers of Syria, Iraq and Iran, bringing in millions of Muslim citizens at a time when Europeans are uneasy about having so many Muslims within their countries.

That unease is based in part on terrorism fears but also on the feeling that many Muslims reject European values of secularism, women's equality and separation of religion and politics. European concerns remain even though Turkey has been an avowedly secular state since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

Turkey would become the largest EU member its population is expected to surpass Germany's 83 million people by 2020. That would give Turkey considerable power because voting within the EU is weighted by population.

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