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TURKEY took a step forward on Monday in its efforts to join the European Union but expressed frustration over slow progress in its entry talks, largely held up by a dispute with EU member Cyprus.

At a meeting in Brussels, the EU opened a new area of negotiations covering environment policy, but kept discussions on eight other topics frozen because of Turkey’s failure to lift a blockade on Cypriot sea and air traffic.

Ankara says it is trying to improve relations with Cyprus and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urged EU states to recognise this, as well as Turkey’s importance for EU foreign policy goals.

He said the EU would have to decide whether to take advantage of Turkey as a strategic asset or to allow individual issues such as Cyprus get in the way.

“The big majority of EU countries see the strategic asset of Turkey-EU relations,” he told a news briefing in Brussels.

Member states that support Turkey’s progress towards EU membership cite its strategic position as an energy conduit and its vast market as assets for Europe.

Ankara’s rising influence in the Middle East could also boost Europe’s efforts to raise its profile in regional policy-making.

However, opponents say it is too poor and culturally different to join.

Ankara says it will open up to traffic from the Greek Cypriot southern part of Cyprus if the EU ends the isolation of the Turkish Cypriot north of the island. Turkish Cypriots declared an independent state in 1983, which is recognised only by Turkey.

The EU’s Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn hailed Monday’s opening of talks, known as a chapter, on environmental issues as a vital step in Ankara’s progress.

“It shows Turkey’s EU train is on track and moving,” Rehn said.

“The environment chapter is technically complicated, time-consuming and rather challenging. I am confident this process will lead to excellent results.”

Turkey will have to prove its environmental protection and waste management rules as well as efforts to curb industrial pollution are up to EU standards.

Turkish officials in Brussels reiterated calls for visa-free access to the EU for Turkish citizens. The EU lifted visa restrictions for Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia, all of which want to join the EU, on December 19.

EU officials said talks on the issue had taken place on Monday but no decision was imminent.

“Formally speaking, the answer is ‘no’,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said. Sweden holds the EU’s rotating six-month presidency until the end of the year.

“But the issue was taken up. It is our hope we will be able to move forward on this.”

To win visa-free entry to the EU, a country must meet requirements on a range of issues including border controls and justice . (Reuters)

By Justyna Pawlak Published by Cyprusmail, on December 21, 2009

|||Frustrated Turkey inches forward in talks with EU
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