EU faces showdown with Cyprus over Turkish talks

(Reuters) - European Union foreign ministers faced a showdown with new member Cyprus on Monday over Turkey's bid to join the bloc, with Nicosia threatening to block the talks even before they start in earnest.

Turkey is due to conclude negotiations on the first and easiest of 35 detailed policy areas -- science and research -- but Cyprus is insisting that Ankara first be reminded of its obligation to recognize and normalize relations with Nicosia, reports Trend.

Cyprus is threatening to use its right of veto over each stage in the accession process to prevent the Turks completing the first step in its EU marathon smoothly.

"No progress has been made toward our views and therefore I would say it is touch and go," Cypriot Foreign Minister George Iacovou said on arrival for the EU session in Luxembourg.

"Turkey has for one year not taken any steps whatsoever to ratify the adaptation of the protocol to the Ankara agreement. This is a breach of good faith," he told reporters.

Accusing Turkey of having vetoed Cypriot membership of international organizations five times since it began its EU talks, Iaocovou went straight into talks with Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, holder of the EU's rotating presidency, to seek a solution before all 25 EU ministers met.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, who endured a humiliating wait while EU foreign ministers wrangled last October before agreeing the terms for opening talks with the bloc's biggest candidate, is determined to avoid a repeat.

"I will not go and wait in the airport," Gul told CNN Turk TV on Sunday, when asked if he would attend the meeting if the EU ministers raise a political hurdle.

Turkey, which still has 35,000 troops in Turkish Cypriot northern Cyprus after invading in 1974 in response to a Greek Cypriot coup fomented by the then ruling military junta in Athens, does not recognize the Nicosia government.

It argues that recognition is linked to a U.N.-sponsored peace plan to reunite the divided island, which Turkish Cypriots accepted but Greek Cypriots rejected in 2004.

CYPRUS ALONE

The other 24 EU countries had been bracing for a row with Turkey late this year over its failure to open its ports and airports to traffic from Cyprus but were taken aback when Nicosia decided to raise the stakes now.

"Instead of putting the focus on Turkey's lack of reform, the Cypriots' behavior is turning the spotlight onto Cypriot intransigence," a senior EU diplomat said.

Ironically it was Austria, now in the EU hot seat trying to keep the negotiations on track, which kept Turkey waiting last October to demand that the EU make Ankara's membership bid conditional on the bloc's capacity to absorb new members.

An Austrian official said he expected EU foreign ministers would anyway hold a regular "association council" with Turkey, represented by chief negotiator Ali Babacan, who is also the country's economy minister, or by its EU ambassador.

But it remained uncertain whether that session would be followed by an "accession conference" to conclude the science and research "chapter" of the negotiations.

Austria, backed by EU lawyers, has sought to reassure Cyprus that any "chapter" that is provisionally closed may be reopened.

Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, voicing the exasperation of many, said: "Let us not stop at the beginning because this is a very innocent chapter."

Compounding the slight to Turkey, the EU plans to conclude the same negotiating "chapter" on Monday with Croatia, which began talks on the same day as the Turks.

Some diplomats said they believed Cyprus would eventually yield on Monday but wanted to fire a warning shot and lock in EU partners' support for getting tough with Turkey in December unless it opens its ports and airports by then.

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