Turkish PM visits Brussels in bid to revive EU accession bid

18th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

The visit -- the first by Erdogan to Brussels since December 2004 -- "is almost historic."

Ankara -- Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to meet European Union officials in Brussels Monday in an effort to revive Turkey's membership bid, stagnating amid political tensions at home and opposition from bloc members.

He is scheduled to hold talks with European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pottering and the leaders of political groups represented in the assembly.

The visit -- the first by Erdogan to Brussels since December 2004 -- "is almost historic," commented Cengiz Aktar, a Turkish academic specialising in EU affairs.

"The government is realising that without Europe, it will not go very far, that without its European anchor Turkey's ship will not reach a safe haven," Aktar told AFP.

Erdogan "will probably try to convey the message that Turkey is still there even though a little late, and he will certainly ask the Europeans to renew their trust" in Turkey, he said.

Turkey's reform programme has been at a near standstill since 2007, paralysed largely by political tensions between Erdogan's Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) and army-backed secularist forces.

The tensions prompted early general elections in 2007 and culminated in a legal bid to outlaw the AKP for anti-secular activities, which the party narrowly survived in July.

Turkey's accession talks began in October 2005 after Erdogan's government undertook a series of far-reaching democracy reforms.

But it has so far opened discussions on only 10 of the 35 policy areas that candidates must successfully negotiate, lagging far behind Croatia whose accession negotiations had opened simultaneously.

At the core of the slow progress is a trade row over Cyprus, which Turkey does not recognise, that prompted the EU in 2006 to freeze negotiations in eight chapters.

Ankara refuses to open its ports to Cypriot use under a customs union pact with the EU, arguing that Brussels has failed to deliver on promises to ease the economic isolation of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots in the divided island.

Strong opposition from some EU members to Turkey's accession has also slowed down the process, with Turkish officials accusing particularly France of hampering progress in the talks.

In a sign of a refreshed determination to revitalise its accession drive, the government last week appointed a new chief negotiator -- Egemen Bagis, a close aide of Erdogan -- to lead the membership negotiations.

Bagis, who will accompany Erdogan in Brussels, took over the chief negotiator's portfolio from Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, whose occupation of both posts was long criticised as a sign that the country's EU bid was not receiving special attention from the government.

The agenda of Erdogan's meetings with EU officials will also include energy issues and the situation in the Middle East following Israel's deadly offensive in the Gaza Strip, Turkish officials said.

Erdogan is due to arrive in Brussels Sunday and meet with representatives of the Turkish immigrant community in Belgium. He is to wrap up his visit Tuesday.

Sibel Utku Bila/AFP/Expatica

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