EU warms to cooperation with Turkey, ministers say

EU warms to cooperation with Turkey, ministers say

European Union foreign ministers on Saturday put aside their deep differences over the question of Turkey's EU bid to call for closer cooperation on foreign-policy issues, dpa reported.

EU member states are at odds over Turkey's ongoing accession talks. Britain, the Nordic states and Italy support its bid, but France and Germany oppose it, making it hard for the EU agree on how to deal with its powerful neighbour.

But after Saturday's informal talks, "even those countries which have fairly deep reservations recognise more than they perhaps did in the past the strategic importance of Turkey to the EU," Sweden's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, told the German Press Agency dpa.

His Estonian counterpart, Urmas Paet, agreed, saying that EU states now realise that "there are two most important strategic partners: the United States and Turkey."

In recent years, Turkey has emerged as a key player in the Middle East and Central Asia, moving increasingly into the role of the main intermediary between the Muslim world and the West.

Many of its moves have won Western acclaim, but recent stances on Iran and Israel have clashed with EU and US attitudes, leading analysts to say that both sides would gain by improving cooperation.

"Imagine working with Turkey on a strategic basis around the world: it is a very powerful combination," British Foreign Minister William Hague said.

But Turkey is also negotiating towards EU membership, and has run into fierce opposition from France and Germany, which want it to accept a lesser "privileged partnership" - something Turkey rejects.

"Turkey will never accept any replacement or any alternative to the accession process," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.

That has split the EU, with states such as Britain and Italy insisting that Turkey be given the same treatment as other hopefuls.

   "We're not talking about some kind of privileged partnership, we're talking about deep integration and cooperation," Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said.

Saturday's meeting did not reach concrete decisions or set out specific steps for future work. Italy's deputy minister, Alfredo Mantica, said he wanted the EU in future to invite Turkey to EU summits and high-level political meetings.

But ministers agreed that the discussion had succeeded in putting the tensions of the accession issue aside to focus on cooperation.

"It's not about (accession) decisions which do not have to be taken today: it's about treating Turkey fairly and respectfully," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.

"It was a fairly encouraging debate," Bildt agreed. 

However, diplomats also warned that the accession topic could soon overshadow broader cooperation again. Turkey has to bring its laws into line with EU rules in 33 areas, the so-called "chapters." Thirteen chapters have been opened, and the EU has frozen eight more until Turkey opens its ports to Cypriot vessels.

But France and Cyprus have frozen an estimated nine further chapters. That leaves just three which could be opened - a fact which diplomats warn could soon bring talks to a standstill.

The decision by "certain countries" to freeze talks unilaterally is "fundamentally unacceptable," Bildt warned. The EU "will return to" the issue, he said.

Davutoglu also highlighted the matter, saying, "There should be a new approach, meaning to open more chapters, not to have any linkage or political barriers which are not related to the negotiation process, including the Cyprus question or others."

However, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton stressed that Turkey would have to do its part by bringing its laws into line with EU rules.

"It does require for Turkey to also put in the effort to make sure that that is happening," Hague agreed.

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