ISTANBUL: Turkey hosted talks on Tuesday with the European Union’s foreign affairs chief on its troubled bid to join the bloc after claims that the sluggish progress is pushing Ankara away from the West.
Catherine Ashton, accompanied by EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fule, met in Istanbul with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Turkey’s chief negotiator in membership talks, Egemen Bagis.
"The main objective of the meeting… is to reaffirm the EU’s commitment to Turkey and explore ways how the EU and Turkey can enhance cooperation in the region," an EU statement said.
The EU opened accession talks with Turkey in 2005, but the process has moved slowly amid French and German opposition to the mainly Muslim country’s membership and the sluggish pace of reform in Ankara.
Last month, talks began on a new policy area, food safety, bringing the total number of chapters Turkey has managed to open to 13 out of 35.
Eight chapters remain frozen as a sanction for Turkey’s refusal to open its sea and air ports to Cyprus, an EU member that Ankara does not recognize owing to the island’s 36-year division between its Greek and Turkish communities.
The reform drive of the Islamist-rooted government in Ankara has notably declined in recent years, and France and Germany have added to the gloom, arguing that Turkey does not belong to Europe and should settle for a special partnership rather than full membership.
The United States and some European officials have charged that the EU’s failure to fully embrace Turkey is behind a perceived shift in the country’s foreign policy towards the East.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused Europe last month of "refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought", an argument that was later endorsed by Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.
The accusations were raised last month after Turkey voted against fresh UN sanctions on Iran over its controversial nuclear program and plunged into a deep crisis with one-time ally Israel after nine Turks were killed in an Israeli operation on a Gaza-bound aid ship.
Both issues were likely to be on the agenda of Tuesday’s talks.
Turkey insists on a diplomatic solution in the row with Iran, arguing that a nuclear fuel swap deal it brokered together with Brazil in May should be the basis of fresh talks with the Islamic republic.
It has proposed to host talks between Ashton, as a representative of the so-called P5+1 group of world powers, and Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.
"Turkey has recently started to become more assertive in its foreign policy. We welcome the increasingly important role of Turkey in the region. In this context we will also look at the ways in which the EU and Turkey can enhance cooperation," the EU statement quoted Ashton as saying.
In comments on Turkish-Israeli tensions, Bagis signaled EU help would be welcome in efforts to repair bilateral ties.
"We would naturally welcome the recovery of ties with Israel if Ms Ashton can persuade Israeli officials" to meet Turkey’s fence-mending conditions, Bagis told Tuesday’s edition of the English-language Today’s Zaman daily.
"She is very well aware of Turkey’s reasonable expectations from Israel, if Ms Ashton would like to mediate on the dispute between Turkey and Israel: apology, compensation for families of the victims and lifting of the illegal embargo on Gaza," he said.
Bagis stressed Turkey would also press for stronger EU support against the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) after it dramatically stepped up its violent campaign against Ankara in recent weeks.
Turkey has long accused EU countries of tolerating PKK activities and organizations affiliated to the rebels on their soil, despite blacklisting it as a terrorist organization.