EU-Turkey agree to resume membership talks despite protest crackdown

Turkey and the EU mended fences Tuesday, agreeing to reopen long stalled talks on Turkey's EU membership despite strong reticence from Germany and others over Ankara's tough crackdown on anti-government protests.

Ireland, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, said EU ministers agreed to resume membership talks with Turkey after a three-year break, but that a date to kick off the negotiations would be announced in the autumn.

European Affairs ministers meeting in Luxembourg "agree to open Chapter 22", an Irish statement said, referring to one of 35 sets of EU rules and regulations that candidates to membership of the bloc must satisfy before gaining entry to the European club.

In Ankara, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu hailed the decision and an official statement said "this is the right step in our relations which have been going through tough times."

"Chapter 22 has been opened. This matter is over," Davutoglu said in televised remarks.

The opening of negotiations on Chapter 22 originally was to have kicked off Wednesday in Brussels, but Berlin, backed by the governments of Austria and the Netherlands, blocked the plan citing concern over Ankara's tough crackdown on protests in the last weeks.

"We cannot act as if nothing has happened in the last days," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on joining talks on Monday with his counterparts from the 27-nation bloc in Luxembourg.

Westerwelle returned to the meeting Tuesday saying however that he had had "a very good, very constructive conversation" with Davutoglu and that an agreement was possible.

Negotiations now are expected to kick off in the autumn, probably in October after the German elections and after the release of annual reports by Brussels on reform within EU candidate nations.

Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger backed the idea of giving Turkey "a certain amount of time in which we can have a look at human rights, freedom of speech."

"We are a community of values," he said. "You can't stick the knife in countries like Egypt but not criticise an EU candidate country."

The sudden German opposition last week to re-opening membership talks with Turkey triggered tension between Ankara and Berlin, with sharp words exchanged and each calling in the other's ambassador for explanations.

Turkey began accession talks in 2005 but so far has agreed with the EU only one of 35 chapters needed to gain entry into the EU club.

The clashes in Turkey between police and protesters left four dead and tarnished the government's image.

A delay in opening the new chapter would have raised fresh doubts about whether the predominantly Muslim country of 76 million people will ever be admitted to the European club.

Reopening Turkey's long-stalled bid for membership requires unanimity between the 27 member states, and as is often the case the ministers went into the meeting poles apart.

Sweden's Carl Bildt said he saw "no reason" to delay the accession talks until after the German polls.

"German elections are a good thing, but it cannot be an excuse for postponing everything else in Europe," he told AFP.

Turkey's accession "is the slowest accession process in the history of the European Union, and there hasn't been a chapter opened for years."

"I think this is an extremely important time to engage with Turkey. We want to influence events in Turkey, we don't want to walk away from Turkey," he said.

"It's very important to confirm our open door to Turkey. That's the political signal, that the door is open, that we want to take this new step."

Luxembourg's Jean Asselborn said it was vital for the EU to maintain relations with Turkey while clearly criticising the crackdown on the protests.

"We need to think less about the government than about the Turkish people," he said. "Millions of people in Turkey hope that the EU continues to put pressure" on the government.