Cyprus Complicates Turkey's Efforts to Join EU

Two years ago, the European Union agreed to formally open talks on Turkey joining the EU. Now the agreement is in jeopardy. One obstacle is Turkey's relationship with the island of Cyprus. The EU has given Turkey until mid-December to allow trade with Cyprus or likely face a cut-off of talks in certain areas.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On this Thanksgiving we have an update on Turkey. It's just how the news worked out. Turkey wants to join the European Union. That's a big deal because Turkey is mostly in Asia. And because it's a Western ally in the Middle East. And because it would be the first majority Muslim country in the European Union. European nations are already anxious about their growing Muslim minorities.

Now Turkey is facing the possibility that the European Union will cut off some of the talks over membership. Here's NPR's Emily Harris.

EMILY HARRIS: The problem is promises and deadlines. As part of its long-running efforts to join the European Union, Turkey promised to open its air and sea ports to planes and ships from the Greek part of the island nation of Cyprus. Now it's been told to do so in a matter of weeks, or this very diplomatic threat from EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn.

Mr. OLLI REHN (EU Enlargement Commission): The commissioner will make relevant recommendations at the head of the European Council in December if Turkey has not fulfilled its obligations. Failure to implement its obligations will affect the overall progress in the negotiations.

HARRIS: That's understood to mean that if ships from Cyprus cannot dock in Turkey, Turkey's negotiations with the European Union could be partially frozen, effectively stopping its path to joining the EU until trade with Cyprus is normalized.

That is a big order. Turkey hasn't had relations with the Greek part of Cyprus since 1974, when Turkey invaded the island after an attempted coup there. Ever since it's been divided into Turkish north, recognized only by Turkey, and Greek south. The south effectively represents Cyprus in the European Union, which it joined two years ago.

Vural Oger is an ethnic Turk and the member of the European parliament representing Germany. He reminds those putting pressure on Turkey that in 2004 the European Union also promised to help the northern Turkish part of Cyprus out of its isolation. So far, very little has been done.

Mr. VURAL OGER (German Representative, European Parliament): So the Turks say we are ready to keep our word. But you Europeans why don't you want to keep your word?

HARRIS: He wants U.S. intervention. Washington strongly supports Turkey joining the European Union, but State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Matt Bryza says the U.S. is doing nothing special on the issue right now.

Those who want Turkey to join the European Union often warn that otherwise the officially secular state with a Muslim majority will turn towards its fundamentalist neighbors.

Some also worry that Europe could lose the Turkish market to competitors, including China. But even Germany, with a substantial ethnic Turkish population, prefers a special partnership with Turkey over a full European Union membership.

The latest threat to Turkey's attempt to join the European club does not surprise many Turks here.

Ms. VILVIA TIERRI(ph): (Speaking foreign language)

HARRIS: In a tiny café in Kreutzberg, the heart of Berlin's Turkish community, Vilvia Tierri chops meat pastry. She's not heard of the Cyprus ports deadline, but she says there is always something.

Ms. TIERRI: (Through Translator) I mean to invite a country like Romania or Poland or Bulgaria into the European Union while they are so poor - Turkey has everything.

HARRIS: Regular customer Zee-Glinda Anton is a German woman who lived in Turkey for almost a decade. She says the obstacle is religion.

Ms. ZEE-Glinda ANTON: (Speaking foreign language)

HARRIS: Islam - this is what it's about, she says. I'm 100 percent sure.

The debate here goes on as it does in Brussels, Ankara, and many places in between. European officials say the December deadline for a change in relations between Turkey and Cyprus could be the last chance to make serious progress on the issue for years to come. Turkey calls the deadline blackmail.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Berlin.

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