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Standoff Threatens Start of Turkey's Membership Negotiations with EU

European Union foreign ministers will hold emergency talks in Luxembourg Sunday in a last-ditch attempt to break a deadlock over the scheduled beginning of the bloc's membership negotiations with Turkey a day later. The standoff has been caused by Austria's insistence that the EU should only open talks if a clear alternative to full membership for Turkey is inserted in the negotiating framework.

Last December, all 25 EU members, including Austria, agreed that Turkey's long-sought membership talks should begin on October 3. They promised Turkey that the goal of the negotiations, which are expected to take at least a decade, would be full membership in the bloc and nothing else.

But that was before voters in France and the Netherlands turned down the EU's draft constitution. Among the reasons they gave for doing so was a concern about the EU's ability to absorb such a huge, mostly poor and overwhelmingly Muslim country like Turkey.

Whereas most EU states think they should stick to their commitment to begin talks with Turkey, given Ankara's fulfillment of EU demands that it improve human rights, reform its judicial system and move towards a market economy, most European citizens are either opposed or indifferent to Turkish membership.

Austria is the only EU country to publicly oppose the start of talks with Turkey. Vienna says the negotiations should only begin if Turkey is offered an option to full membership that Austrian diplomats describe as a "privileged partnership" with the bloc.

Turkey says it will not accept any goal for the negotiations other than full membership and has warned the EU it will not show up for Monday's talks unless that is made clear.

Fadi Hakura, a specialist on Turkey at London's Chatham House research institute, says the Austrian government is trying to score points with its Turco-skeptic voters and may also be trying to force the EU to start negotiations with Croatia, whose membership it has long supported.

"Austrian public opinion at the present time is hostile to Turkey's EU accession hopes," said Fadi Hakura. "Also, Austria is trying to use, it seems to me that it is trying to use [Turkish] accession as a leverage to open accession talks with Croatia. And also, for domestic political consumption, it has adopted somewhat of a tough position."

British diplomats, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, are scrambling to work out a deal with the Austrians to soften their opposition to Turkey. One possibility is a commitment for the EU to begin membership talks with Croatia in the near future, under certain conditions. The EU has suspended such talks with Croatia because of what it says is Croatia's failure to cooperate with the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Diplomats in Brussels say there are two other options to resolve the impasse and arrive at the consensus the EU needs to proceed with opening the talks with Turkey. One is to craft a declaration that could mollify Austria's demands without alienating the Turks, a difficult challenge at this point. And the second is for the other 24 EU members to stare Austria down and remind it that it is going back on the commitment it made last December to begin negotiations with Turkey.

Even if membership talks do begin on schedule, Turkey will have a rough time in the years ahead. The European Parliament demanded this week that Turkey recognize the killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I as genocide. Cyprus threatens to block the negotiations if Turkey does not soon recognize the island's government. And France says it will hold a referendum on Turkish entry into the EU once negotiations are concluded.

In Turkey, meanwhile, there is anger and frustration at what Turks see as the EU's backpedaling on its pledge to admit their country.

Deniz Baykal, the head of the Republican Peoples' Party, the only major opposition group in parliament, reflects Turkish public opinion when he says the EU keeps moving the goal posts.

"We have taken important reforms during the last several years," Mr. Baykal said. "We changed our constitution. We changed our legislation. We changed our practices...Now, the European Union is saying that Turkey's being a member of Europe does not depend on Turkey's performance, but [on] our capability of having Turkey as a big country in Europe. They were asking Turkey to meet certain criteria. Now they begin to say that they themselves are not ready to accept Turkey."

Turkish diplomats in Brussels say the combination of opposition among Europeans to Turkey's membership and EU demands on such issues as Kurdish rights, Cyprus and the killing of Armenians have inflamed deep-seated Turkish nationalism. They say that most Turks still support EU membership, but that the percentage is steadily decreasing. And they say that, as Turkey and the EU get down to the nitty-gritty of negotiations, that support could fall even further.