EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Britain and a handful of other allies showed support for Turkey on Tuesday (14 December) as the Belgian EU presidency marked a low point in the accession process by failing to open any new negotiating chapters before the end of its six-month tenure.
"We need to be bold, we need to be true to the vision which inspired the enlargement process," Britain's Europe minister David Lidington said on the margins of talks on the enlargement process with his 26 EU counterparts in Brussels. Italy's FM Franco Frattini noted that Turkey is set to become Europe's second largest economy by 2050.
In a joint letter published in the International Herald Tribune at the weekend, the four foreign ministers of Britain, Sweden, Finland and Italy warned Europe against "turning its back on Turkey" and called for "the transformation of a mainly Western European Club into a truly pan-European Union."
"The crucial question is not whether Turkey is turning its back on Europe, but rather if Europe is turning its back on the fundamental values and principles that have guided European integration over the last 50 years," they said. "The doubts over admitting a large and self-confident nation are as explicit now as they were when Britain once applied - facing strong opposition from older members of the club. Concerns are legitimate - but the counter-argument is clear: New members can help Europe return to economic dynamism."
In the final conclusions of Tuesday's meeting in Brussels, the EU says that accession talks with Turkey "have reached a more demanding stage," because no new chapter has been opened in the past six months. The development is a record low since Turkey began the formal negotiations, in October 2005, opening 13 chapters out of 35 so far at a pace of at least one every six months.
"I do not consider it a setback," Belgian foreign minister Steven Vanackere said.
He added that a new chapter, on competition law, may be opened in January or February. Its opening under Belgium was postponed due to lack of technical progress on the Turkish side.
French and German opposition to Turkey's bid add to the country's long-lasting territorial dispute with Greece and Cyprus over the status of the northern part of the Mediterranean island, which Ankara has recognised as independent. Eight chapters remain frozen until Turkey moves on the Cyprus issue, by, for instance, letting ships and planes from the Greek Cypriot part come to Turkish ports and airports.
Ministers' conclusions expressed their "deep regret" that is no progress on Cyprus, warning that talks will not move forward on until there is a change.
Croatia 'within reach'
Other EU hopefuls in the Balkans were given more promising prospects. The end of Croatia's accession talks is "within reach," the ministers said, while Montenegro's status will be upgraded to that of official EU "candidate" on Thursday when EU leaders meet in Brussels.
On Iceland, ministers noted that the country's preparedness for meeting EU requirements "remains good." But no details are given on when talks are to end.
Macedonia, whose candidate status is blocked by Greece due to a dispute over its name, remains on standby, with ministers saying they may consider opening talks "during the next [EU] presidency."
Albania and Serbia are also to get candidate status when they meet European Commission criteria in areas such as justice and rule of law. Belgrade also has to "fully co-operate" with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) - described as an "essential condition."
Bosnia's "European perspective" is backed "unequivocally," but without further details as to when international supervision of the country may end. Citizens from Bosnia and Albania from Wednesday onwards have the extra bonus of being able to enter the EU without visas.
Meanwhile, Kosovo is praised for having held "calm" and "orderly" elections, but ministers pointed to "major challenges" on organised crime, corruption and money laundering - issues already highlighted by a leaked Council of Europe report on Tuesday which accused Kosovar PM Hashim Thaci of leading a violent criminal organisation involved in heroin and organ trafficking.