x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Turkey hopes France will drop objections to its EU bid

The standstill in Turkey's accession process has led to a slowdown of reforms in Turkey, the only Muslim nation vying for European Union membership.

ISTANBUL // As Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, prepared for the first meeting with his new French counterpart, Francois Hollande, today on the sidelines of a Nato summit, officials in Ankara said they were eager for a new start in relations with the European Union.

"I am sure president Hollande, with his visionary leadership, will support Turkey's EU accession process," Egemen Bagis, Turkey's minister for EU affaris, said yesterday.

Mr Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, was one of Europe's most powerful Turkey sceptics and was strongly opposed to Turkish membership in the EU. Mr Bagis said he was certain that Mr Hollande would lift Mr Sarkozy's veto against key parts of Ankara's negotiations to join the union.

"This would not only restore the credibility of the EU, but also open a fresh page in our bilateral relations with France," he said.

Ankara hopes the meeting of the presidents in Chicago will provide clarity on Mr Hollande's stance. Turkey's accession process, which started in 2005, has been stalled for two years.

Asked if Turkey had received any signals from the new administration in Paris that it would take a different approach, a Turkish diplomat replied: "Not yet, but that is our wish and expectation."

Under Mr Sarkozy, France blocked five of the 34 areas, called chapters, of Turkey's EU accession talks.

"There is a need for a new dynamic" in Turkey's EU talks, said Semih Idiz, a foreign policy columnist for the Milliyet newspaper. "Not membership as such, but the process is important," he said, adding that without impulses by the EU, Turkey's reform drive was "losing its way".

Mr Idiz said a change of the French position would not result in an immediate breakthrough for Turkey because the country needed time to adapt to the changes the EU required in areas such as monetary policy and agriculture. "But it will have a very positive psychological effect."

The standstill in Turkey's accession process has led to a slowdown of reform efforts in Turkey, the only Muslim nation vying for EU membership, and to frictions between the EU and Nato.

Last year, Ankara criticised Nato's role in the war in Libya, after France spearheaded the alliance's involvement there. Turkey has also used its veto powers as a Nato member to block cooperation agreements between the alliance and the EU, such as a deal to share counterterrorism information.

But speaking to reporters in Ankara before his departure for the United States on Friday, Mr Gul denied news reports that Turkey had objected to the invitation of high-ranking EU officials to the summit.

He also noted Turkey's decision to have a Nato radar system installed in the province of Malatya as part of the bloc's missile-shield programme, saying it proved "the importance [Turkey] attaches to solidarity within the alliance". Iran has protested against the radar system.

Since Mr Hollande's victory on May 6, EU and Turkish officials have been preparing for more dynamic negotiations. Last Thursday, during a visit to Ankara by Stefan Fule, the bloc's enlargement commissioner, the two sides agreed to set up working groups to prepare Turkey for areas of the accession talks that are blocked at the moment.

"Our aim is to keep the accession process alive and put it properly back on track after a period of stagnation which has been a source of frustration on both sides," Mr Fule said.

So far, Turkey has tackled only 13 of the 34 EU negotiation chapters. Apart from the five chapters blocked by France, another eight are off limits because Turkey refuses to recognise EU member Cyprus.

The conflict on Cyprus, which is split into a Greek and a Turkish sector, weighs heavily on Ankara's EU bid. Turkey does not have relations with the internationally recognised republic of Cyprus in the Greek part of the island, which belongs to the EU. Turkey says it will cut ties with the EU presidency in the second half of this year, when Cyprus takes over the rotating EU chair for six months.