As Turkey EU entry talks flounder, Britain fights back

Published 15.12.2010 14:57

As Turkey's stalled bid to join the EU club virtually grinds to a halt, Britain and allies Tuesday led a counter-charge to open the door to further expansion in the interests of added economic leverage.

"We need to be bold, we need to be true to the vision which inspired the enlargement process," said Britain's Europe Minister David Lidington on joining talks in Brussels over the path to enlarging the 27-nation bloc.

Swept up in a tide of financial turbulence and hard-hitting austerity constraints, the prevalent mood within the European Union instead seems weary and inward-looking.

A statement adopted by the ministers "reaffirms the strong support of the EU for taking the enlargement process forward", but diplomats privately admit the taste for expansion is fast fizzling.

"Enlargement is off the radar, it's all about small steps now," said a diplomat.

After ushering in 10 new members in 2004, the EU now realises it may have been hasty in taking in Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, said another diplomat.

"The club has tightened the rules and is dragging its feet, which is frustrating for candidate countries."

But at issue for Britain and allies Sweden, Finland and Italy, is essentially Turkey's stalled stab for entry, which they see as holding back potential for the bloc's economic growth.

Though Turkey began accession talks as far back as 2005, at the same time as Croatia, it lags far behind the Balkan state which hopes to wind up negotiations next year and join in early 2013.

Belgium, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, had hoped to open a new chapter by year-end with Ankara on competition policy, but the statement, while noting progress, says more benchmarks need to be met "in view of its opening."

Ankara's snail-like progress towards membership is snarled on paper over the Cyprus issue -- 18 of 35 chapters are blocked either by the EU as a whole, by the Greek Cypriot-led government, or by France.

But at the heart of staunch resistance put by several leading members, including heavyweights France and Germany, is the fact its huge population is not European.

Yet Britain and its allies see its 78 million people and its strategic links to the Middle East and Africa as an argument in its favour.

"In the current divide, some say let's shut the EU door, we say it's the time to open it," said a British diplomat.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague flew into Brussels on Monday saying "Turkey has made important progress ... we must do further work on Turkey's accession."

In this weekend's edition of the International Herald Tribune, Hague and his counterparts from Finland, Italy and Sweden issued a joint plea for "the transformation of a mainly Western European Club into a truly pan-European Union."

"The crucial question is not whether Turkey is turning its back on Europe, but rather if Europe is turning its back on the fundamental values and principles that have guided European integration over the last 50 years," said Hague, Finland's Alexander Stubb, Italy's Franco Frattini and Sweden's Carl Bildt.

New members, they added, "can help Europe return to economic dynamism and take on its proper weight in world affairs."

At Tuesday's talks, Frattini pointed out to his 26 counterparts that according to the OECD, Turkey by 2050 will be Europe's second biggest economy, with growth of five percent compared to the average one percent seen in the eurozone.


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