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Dispute Over Cyprus Latest Hurdle in Turkey's EU Accession Bid

European Union foreign ministers meet next week in Brussels to discuss possible punitive measures against Turkey for its failure to open its airports and harbors to EU-member Cyprus, whose Greek Cypriot government is not recognized by Turkey. VOA's Sonja Pace reports from Istanbul, the dispute is the latest in a series of hurdles in Turkey's long-standing bid for EU membership.

The EU executive body, the European Commission, has already decided to recommend a partial suspension of negotiations with Turkey. Germany and France are calling for a review of Turkey's progress on the Cyprus issue in 18 months time and several other members also favor a review deadline.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said any suspension of talks would be a major mistake and the EU Commissioner for enlargement, Olli Rehn, told the Reuters news agency, deadlines will not produce good results. Instead, he called for the Cyprus dispute to be resolved through the United Nations.

Starting in the early 1970s now retired Ambassador Temil Iskit was deeply involved in Turkey's negotiations for EU membership. Speaking to VOA at his home in Istanbul, Iskit acknowledges that Turkey has not fulfilled its signed pledge to open up its airports and harbors to the Greek Cypriots. But he says the EU has also not lived up to its verbal promises to lift the economic embargo on Turkish northern Cyprus.

"What we say is - you have made a promise concerning northern Cyprus," he said. "We have signed this protocol on the other hand. So, this is a quid pro quo - lift the embargo, we'll open our ports."

Iskit says the EU cannot fulfill its promise because of Greek Cypriot opposition.

Some liken that to blackmail and many Turks feel betrayed by the EU, especially after Turkish Cypriots, with Ankara's backing, voted for a U.N. plan to resolve the Cyprus issue and reunite the divided island in 2004. Greek Cypriots voted against the plan and were nonetheless admitted to the EU Many Turks say that has given the Greek Cypriot government veto power over Turkey's accession bid.

There is also a widespread feeling in Turkey that this latest dispute over Cyprus is just another excuse to keep Turkey out.

Ambassador Iskit says there is great anxiety within the EU over Turkey's membership.

"Turkey is a very big country. Turkey is a Muslim country," he said. "So, there are cultural misgivings or prejudices. Cyprus has become a pretext which hides these prejudices and the fact that when Turkey enters [the EU] it will change the EU very much."

But, such change need not be negative, says political sociologist Dogu Ergil of Ankara University. After all, he says, Europe's long-term prospects are not that strong.

"Europe is an economical giant, but politically a mediocre power center, and militarily, it's a dwarf," he said.

Ergil sees Europe as trying to move away from NATO as its sole source of protection and he says Turkey with its large, well trained military and its economic potential could be a definite bonus.

"They need Turkey for the defense of Europe," he said. "Secondly, Turkey is a big market and it has a vital population. The population of Europe is aging and dwindling. So, I think Turkey will provide the manpower and economic dynamism that the West needs."

Ergil says Turkey is not yet ready for such a role. It needs to continue its political and economic reforms before it is ready for EU membership. Estimates are that membership negotiations will last over a decade. Still, Turkish analysts say the process itself has been good for Turkey in providing a vital incentive to modernize and liberalize both its political and economic systems.

But not all Turks favor joining the EU Political analyst Hasan Unal of Ankara's Bilkent University is among the euro-skeptics. He cites the differences between Turkey and other EU members and says, contrary to the general belief, Turkey does not stand to benefit much from joining and instead should take care of its own development.

"It is not European Union money that is going to make us prosperous," he said. "Plus, the European Union 'honey-pot' [source of wealth] is empty now. What we need to understand is that the European Union membership is not as beneficial for the acceding countries as it used to be in the 1960's, 70's and 80's."

Unal favors a special partnership agreement between Turkey and the EU, but not full membership.

Ambassador Temel Iskit disagrees. He says both Turkey and the EU will benefit from Turkey's full membership although he acknowledges that Turkey's entry will signal, what he calls, a complete "transformation" fo the EU.

And Iskit says that despite the current dispute over the Cyprus issue, negotiations will continue.

"The train continues its journey, it will continue its journey because we have common interests," he said.

Iskit says Turkey made a strategic decision long ago that its interests lay westward and he says day to day politics will not interfere in that long-term goal.