- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2006

From combined dispatches

BRUSSELS — The political distance between Turkey and the European Union grew this week as the EU gave Ankara a poor grade on its membership preparations, planned peace talks over Cyprus collapsed and the Turkish prime minister snubbed the pope by refusing to schedule a meeting with him later this month.

The EU is expected to issue a highly critical report on Wednesday accusing Turkey of dragging its heels in political reforms and demanding significant improvements in 2007 if Ankara is to stay on track to join the bloc.

The draft report says that Turkey is failing to meet minimum human rights standards and cites problems in freedom of expression, women’s and trade union rights and civilian control over the military, the Associated Press reported.

Many Europeans are questioning the merit of bringing a large and poor Muslim nation into the bloc. Turkey’s refusal to recognize EU member Cyprus is also proving a major obstacle. Ankara wants the EU to do more to end the isolation of Turkish Cypriots, whose government only Turkey recognizes.

On Thursday, the EU canceled a meeting that would have brought together the foreign ministers of Cyprus and Turkey.

“We have been prepared to arrange a round of talks [with] all parties in Finland. Unfortunately, this has not been possible,” said Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, whose country holds the EU rotating presidency.

Mr. Tuomioja said that the stumbling blocks were “questions related to direct trade between the EU and the northern part of Cyprus” and “the uninterrupted continuation of Turkey’s accession negotiations.”

The Mediterranean island of Cyprus has been divided into a Greek-Cypriot south and a breakaway Turkish-Cypriot north since Turkey invaded in 1974 after a failed Athens-backed coup by supporters of union with Greece. Cyprus entered the 25-member EU in May 2004.

Finland has threatened to suspend Turkey’s entry negotiations unless Ankara drops its refusal to open its ports and airports to cargo from Cyprus. Mr. Tuomioja met with Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat in Brussels yesterday in a frantic effort to defuse tensions.

Earlier this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office said he might not meet with Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Turkey this month, because he will be attending the NATO summit in Latvia.

The announcement was interpreted as a snub, and Mr. Erdogan’s aides were quick to qualify the remark.

“If there was a possibility for a meeting, the prime minister would have met him,” a Turkish government official told Reuters news agency.

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