Turkey opens new EU chapter, seeks equal treatment on visas
Turkey and the European Union started negotiations aimed at raising the applicant country's environmental standards Monday during a ministerial meeting in Brussels that saw Ankara demand equal treatment in the way the 27-member bloc grants visa-free travel to third countries.
"We have taken the decision to open the (negotiating) chapter on the environment. It means Turkey is taking a qualitative step towards a more demanding stage in the negotiations," said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country holds the EU presidency, DPA reported.
The negotiating chapter is just one of 35 that need to be completed before Turkey can apply for EU membership. Eight other chapters are frozen because of a dispute with Cyprus over the fate of the divided island.
In order to raise its environmental standards to European levels, Turkey will have to adopt a series of new laws. These concern a variety of fields, including water quality and industrial pollution.
"We would have hoped to have moved more chapters for negotiations," said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu, but the opening of today's chapter "shows our determination to move forward."
While Turkey is not expected to join the EU any time soon, the bloc's outgoing enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, said the accession process had served as "a driver of fundamental freedoms" aimed at making Turkey a more European country.
Bildt said there was "increased understanding" about the importance of Turkish membership when compared to five years ago and noted the "very broad support" for the European Commission's enlargement efforts that existed in the European Parliament.
"Does this means there is unanimous support in all sectors of European society? No," Bildt said.
Aside from the ongoing conflict with EU member Cyprus, Germany and France have both expressed reservations about the EU welcoming such a large country as Turkey.
Davutoglu, for his part, expressed "deep disappointment" at Cyprus' stance and insisted that EU membership remained of "strategic" importance to his government.
Earlier this month, Cyprus imposed new conditions on opening accession talks, with the bloc urging Ankara to open its ports and airports to Cypriot vessels.
The EU has refused to start talks on trade-related issues because Turkey has not yet agreed to the Cypriot demands.
After the intergovernmental conference in Brussels, Davutoglu also lamented the slow progress reached so far on allowing Turkish citizens to visit the bloc without needing a visa.
"There is no excuse not to give those rights to Turkish citizens," said Davutoglu after the EU agreed to grant visa-free travel to citizens from several Western Balkan countries, such as Serbia.
The minister said that once Turkey had fulfilled the technical requirements, such as the introduction of biometric passports, his country would expect to be treated like any other neighbouring country.