BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Turkey and the European Union began a new round of membership talks on Tuesday months after EU member states delayed them in protest over a Turkish crackdown on anti-government demonstrations.
EU and Turkish negotiators spoke optimistically about a new momentum in Turkey’s long-stalled membership drive after they met in Brussels to begin talks on a new chapter, or policy area, of accession talks, the first opened in more than three years.
The start of the talks on regional policy was delayed from June after Germany and several other EU governments blocked them due to concerns about Ankara’s forceful handling of protests in which six people were killed and 8,000 injured.
“This is really a turning point in Turkish-EU relations. We are opening a chapter after a gap of 40 months ... It is symbolically very important,” Turkey’s chief EU negotiator Egemen Bagis told a news conference.
Referring to an EU official’s call for greater engagement with Turkey, Bagis joked: “We are ready to not only get engaged, but also get married.”
But Bagis also attacked EU policies on the Middle East, saying many Turks could not understand why the EU was not being more vocal about what he called the rape of democracy in Egypt, where the army ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July.
Turks also questioned why the EU had not reacted more strongly to the “brutality” of President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, Turkey’s neighbour, he said.
Turkey began negotiations to join the EU in 2005, 18 years after applying. But a series of political obstacles, notably over the divided island of Cyprus, and resistance to Turkish membership in Germany and France, have slowed progress.
The delays have fuelled frustration in Turkey, where public support for EU membership has slumped.
Turkey has provisionally closed just one of 35 chapters it must negotiate with the EU to bring its laws into line with the 28-nation bloc’s standards. It has now opened 13 other chapters.
The European Commission, the EU executive, last month accused Turkish police of using excessive force to quell protests that swept Turkish cities earlier this year.
But it also praised judicial reforms and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to salvage a peace process with Kurdish insurgents.
France and Germany have always had doubts about allowing a largely Muslim country of 76 million people into the European club, fearing that cultural differences and its size will make it too difficult to integrate.
Ankara’s supporters, led by Britain and Sweden, say the EU can benefit from Turkey’s growing economic clout and rising influence in the Middle East.
Both EU and Turkish officials said they were close to a deal that would allow Turkey to sign an agreement to re-admit illegal immigrants sent back from the EU and to start talks on easing visa requirements for Turks travelling to the EU.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said he hoped the EU would soon be able to set out the conditions Turkey must meet to open two key chapters, covering justice issues and fundamental rights, that have been blocked by Cyprus.
Bagis voiced optimism about prospects for a breakthrough in Cyprus reunification talks that would open the way for Turkey to broaden its talks on EU membership.
Bagis said he also hoped that French President Francois Hollande, who lifted France’s block on opening talks on regional policy with Turkey, would end the vetoes Paris has on opening talks in four other policy areas.
Editing by Alistair Lyon