Germany proposed yesterday (24 June) postponing a new round of EU membership talks with Turkey by about four months to signal the bloc's displeasure at its crackdown on anti-government protests.
The European Union had planned to revive Turkey's EU ambitions on Wednesday by opening a new chapter, or policy area, in the talks – the first opened since 2010.
But Germany, backed by several other EU states, is blocking the plan over Turkey's handling of protests that swept its cities after police used teargas and water cannon to disperse a demonstration against redevelopment of an Istanbul square.
Two weeks of clashes with police have left four people dead, including a policeman, and some 7,500 wounded.
A delay in opening the new chapter would raise new doubts about whether Turkey, a largely Muslim country of 76 million people, will ever be admitted to the European club.
A senior Turkish official told Reuters last week that a decision by the EU not to open the new chapter would "draw a strong reaction from Turkey".
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Berlin had given the compromise proposal to Ireland, holder of the EU presidency, which was consulting other member states.
"We cannot say today if this proposal will fly. We are doing our best to come to a good solution," he told reporters at an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg.
A German diplomat said the proposal was for the EU to agree now to open the new chapter but to delay holding a meeting with Turkey to launch it until later this year.
The official launch would be after the EU issues its annual report on Turkey's progress in bringing its laws into line with EU practice and on human rights, due on 9 October.
The delay would be helpful to German Chancellor Angela Merkel because it would push back the talks until after the September German elections. Merkel's conservatives oppose Turkish EU membership.
Postponement of talks likley
But some other EU governments objected to the German proposal. "Some member states assume the Turks wouldn't like the idea," one EU diplomat said.
Since a unanimous agreement is needed, it looked increasingly likely that the EU will have to call off Wednesday's talks.
The issue may be discussed by EU ministers who meet in Luxembourg on Tuesday to decide whether to set a date for starting membership talks with Serbia.
Ireland's Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore said there was no agreement as yet to open the new chapter. "We're taking soundings on that (German proposal) from interested parties and will reach conclusions some time before Wednesday," he said.
Turkey and Germany became embroiled in a diplomatic row last week after Merkel said she was appalled by Turkey's crackdown.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Ar?nç told reporters on Monday that some EU countries treated Turkey's EU bid negatively because of their own domestic politics but that he expected a "positive" decision to be made on opening a new chapter.
"No country should politicise this process in any way and no political obstacles should be placed in front of us. I, today, think a positive decision will come out of this and the difficulties experienced in recent days in Turkey-European Union relations will be swiftly overcome," Ar?nç said in Ankara.
Turkey's relations with the European Economic Community (EEC) date back to 1959. But it took many years, until the Helsinki European Council of December 1999, for the country to obtain the status of a candidate country for EU membership.
The EU opened accession talks with Turkey in October 2005, but a number of stumbling blocks are holding up Ankara's progress, in particular concerning Turkey's relations with Cyprus, human and minority rights and freedom of expression.
Out of 35 negotiation chapters, so far only one chapter (science and research) has been provisionally closed. Thirteen chapters are open, but the EU has suspended the opening of eight chapters over Turkey's failure to implement the Ankara Protocol, which states that access should be granted and ports opened to products coming from the Republic of Cyprus.
The opening of another 11 chapters has been blocked by the France and the Republic of Cyprus, amounting to 19 blocked chapters in total.
In 2010, the EU, in a gesture of good faith towards Turkey, opened another chapter in the accession process, increasing the total number of opened chapters to 13. The chapter covers sectors related to food safety, veterinary standards and phytosanitary requirements.