EU foreign ministers were to meet in Luxembourg yesterday with the launch of substantive membership talks with Turkey in jeopardy over a continuing dispute over the recognition of Cyprus.
Eight months after the vast mostly Muslim country won a symbolic green light to start negotiations on joining the bloc, the ministers hope to approve the opening of the first of 35 policy "chapters" of concrete discussions.
However they will first have to overcome the latest dispute centred on the Mediterranean island divided between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
Internationally-recognized Greek Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, and has resisted approving the opening of talks until Turkey recognizes the Mediterranean island state and fully implements the so-called Ankara protocol, diplomats said.
"The Cypriots want to highlight the issue and have a political discussion on this question of recognition, which has nothing to do with the contents of the chapter," said one EU diplomat.
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul was expected in Luxembourg Monday, hoping to smile for the cameras and shake hands with his EU counterparts at the launch of accession talks.
But on Sunday there were signals in Ankara that Gul may snub the meeting if there is no agreement on the Cyprus issue.
"We are going to wait for a final decision to be taken [by the EU] before getting on the plane," a Turkish diplomat told reporters on condition of anonymity.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkey occupied the northern third in response to an Athens-engineered Greek Cypriot coup seeking to unite the island with Greece.
The Greek Cypriot government in Nicosia wants to include phrases explicitly putting pressure on Turkey to recognize its sovereignty, and fully implement the Ankara protocol, an accord between Turkey and the EU which notably calls for free access to ports and airports -- still not available to Cypriot ships and planes in Turkey.
The Cypriot government on Saturday was keeping its cards close to its chest over the possible use of its veto to block the opening of the talks.
While yesterday's talks could take some time to resolve the issue, few expect Cyprus to scupper the whole process.
"I don't think they really would block a chapter of which the substance is very limited," one diplomat said.
The talks are at least expected to go ahead with Croatia, which was given a green light at the same time as Turkey, although only after being delayed for half a year as a result of failure to capture a key war crimes suspect.