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EU to temper Turkey criticism, fearful of Cyprus fallout

Brussels — The European Union is expected to temper criticism of Turkey next week, concerned that any false step could raise tensions and undermine a long-sought solution to the division of Cyprus.

In an annual report on Ankara’s progress in implementing EU-oriented reforms, the European Commission is likely to complain about the state of human rights and press freedoms, as it has done each year since 2005.

But the EU’s executive arm will probably steer clear of any broad criticism of Turkey’s failure to extend a customs accord to member Cyprus, whose Greek Cypriot government Ankara refuses to recognise.

"The intent that is taking shape is to avoid derailing the peace negotiations in Cyprus between the north and the south with a report that would be too negative in regard to Turkey," a senior EU official said.

Under the customs agreement with the EU, which Turkey is struggling to join in the face of staunch French and German opposition, Ankara must extend a trade protocol to Cyprus, by the end of this year.

"In the beginning, the end of 2009 was a deadline for Turkey," the official said. "But at the moment it is no longer really one due to the negotiations in Cyprus."

"So we’re expecting a softer report than expected from the commission," which manages enlargement issues on behalf of the 27 EU nations, he said.

Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 in response to a Greek Cypriot coup seeking to unite the Mediterranean island with Greece, and it has been divided ever since.

In 2004, a UN-backed reunification plan was scrapped after being rejected in a referendum by Greek Cypriots but backed by the Turkish Cypriots in the northern third of the island.

New UN-brokered efforts to resolve the standoff are progressing slowly.

The United Nations is eager to step up the pace for a Cyprus solution, but little progress was made during 40 meetings in the first phase of talks.

The two have since returned to the negotiating table in a bid to bridge differences over power-sharing and governance before touching on the more prickly issues of territory and security.

Last week, in a hardening of rhetoric toward the EU, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu insisted that Ankara would refuse to open its ports and airports to Cypriot ships and planes until the status talks are concluded.

"Recognition of the Greek Cypriots without solving the Cyprus question is not possible for us," he told media and experts at a conference in Brussels.

The government in Nicosia, he said, wants "to force Turkey to recognise Greek Cyprus, which we will not do."

The commission’s report comes almost exactly five years after Turkey began its often tortuous membership talks with the EU, with many Turks disenchanted at the slow pace of progress and losing interest in the European enterprise.

Countries hoping to join Europe’s rich club must complete 35 policy negotiating areas, or chapters.

Ankara has formally opened 11 chapters. But eight others have been frozen since 2006 over the customs dispute. France is blocking another five chapters.

France and Germany prefer a "privileged partnership" with mainly Muslim but secular Turkey, rather than full membership, which would give the populous and relatively poor nation a big say in EU affairs.

An EU diplomat said he expected a mixed bag from the report, but certainly no heavy hand when it comes to Cyprus.

"The commission will criticise Turkey on religious freedoms, honour crimes and the respect of certain basic rights. But it will congratulate Turkey on its rapprochement with Armenia and some progress on democracy," he said.

"On the opening of Turkish ports and airports to Cypriot ships and planes, there will be no recommendation of freezing any new chapters like in 2006," he said.

"The commission will simply state that Turkey still has not ratified the protocol, but it will not go further."