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EU Leader to Hold High-Level Talks in Turkey - 2004-01-14

Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, is scheduled to arrive in Ankara Thursday in a landmark visit to the EU's sole predominantly Muslim candidate for full membership. Mr. Prodi's visit is the first by any EU commission president since Turkey launched relations with the European organization back in 1963.

During his two day tour that will take him to the Turkish capital, Ankara, and the country's financial center, Istanbul, Mr. Prodi is expected to hold talks with Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other prominent Turkish leaders. He will be accompanied by the EU top official in charge of enlargement, Gunter Verheugen.

Talks are expected to focus on Turkey's bid for full membership of the Union made 17 years ago.

At a news conference on the eve of his visit, Mr. Prodi praised Mr. Erdogan's government for a sweeping set of democratic reforms adopted by the Turkish parliament, where the prime minister's ruling Justice and Development party has a strong majority.

But Mr. Prodi noted that implementation of the reforms is crucial in order for Turkey to qualify for membership. The EU is expected to make a decision in December on whether or not to launch accession talks with Turkey.

The EU has long put off Turkey's request to launch membership talks because of the country's poor human rights record. Recent opinion polls also indicate that some EU countries are wary of having a large Muslim country with a rapidly expanding population of 70 million in their midst.

But the main hurdles to Turkey's accession remain political. EU leaders have made it clear that they will not consider launching membership talks unless Turkey uses its influence over the Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, to resume United Nations-sponsored talks aimed at re-uniting the divided island of Cyprus.

EU leaders say that the Greek-controlled south of the island will be admitted as a full member together with nine other candidate countries on May 1, even if a settlement to unite Cyprus is not reached by that date. The island's Turkish Cypriot minority would then be deprived of the benefits of membership enjoyed by their fellow Greek islanders. Turkey's own chances of joining the Union would diminish analysts say.

Hopes that talks can be re-launched between the island's Greek Cypriot majority and the breakaway Turkish republic of northern Cyprus recognized only by Turkey were renewed this week. Mehmet Ali Talat, a Left-wing Turkish Cypriot politician formed a government that backs the U-N's latest re-unification plan. Mr. Talat has expressed hope that under his leadership the Turkish Cypriots will strike a peace deal in time for them to join the EU.

Analysts warn, however, that Mr. Talat cannot resume talks without the firm backing of the Turkish government. Some 35,000 Turkish troops have been stationed in Cyprus ever since Turkey invaded the north of the island in 1974, in response to a coup mounted by Greek Cypriots seeking union with Greece.