EU-Turkey talks to resume but delayed by crackdown

After a three-year break, the European Union on Tuesday agreed to reopen EU membership talks with Turkey but delayed them several months due to concerns notably from Germany over Ankara's tough crackdown on anti-government protests.

Ireland, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said EU ministers agreed to resume entry talks with Turkey but that negotiations proper "will take place later this year."

After two days of tough talks, pitting Germany, Austria and the Netherlands against their 24 partners, ministers agreed a compromise to open EU-Turkey negotiations on so-called Chapter 22, one of 35 sets of EU rules and regulations that EU candidate states must satisfy before gaining entry to the club.

"While we have been disturbed by the reaction to the recent peaceful protests in Turkey, I believe that the EU accession process is the most effective tool we have in influencing the reform agenda in Turkey," Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore said.

"The protests have also shown that Turkey needs further reform," he said. "Moving ahead with the EU accession process .... will, I believe, allow the EU to continue contributing to shaping the direction of future reform in Turkey."

The deal however was concluded only after overnight contacts between German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu.

In Ankara, Davutoglu welcomed the decision. "Chapter 22 has been opened. This matter is over," he said, adding that an obstacle hampering Turkish-EU relations had been overcome.

In a separate statement, the Turkish foreign ministry welcomed the decision as a "step taken in the right direction" but still deemed it "inadequate."

The opening of negotiations on Chapter 22 originally was to have kicked off Wednesday in Brussels, but Berlin, backed by Austria and the Netherlands, blocked the plan citing concern over Ankara's tough crackdown on protests in the last weeks that has left four dead and 7,000 hurt.

"We cannot act as if nothing has happened in the last days," said Germany's Westerwelle.

Negotiations are now 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 said it was a good idea to give 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."

French European Affairs Minister Thierry Repentin said the decision was "a positive result" but added: "We could have begun the discussions in the weeks to come."

"The easiest thing to do might have been to close the door... but I do not think that people protesting in the streets would have wanted the European Union to close the door to dialogue," he said.

Germany's sudden opposition last week to the planned resumption of 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 the 35 chapters needed to gain entry.

Its strategic importance as the Syria conflict unfolds on its border has underlined moves in the West to strengthen the partnership.

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.

"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," Sweden's Carl Bildt told AFP.

"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."

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

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.