Source AP ©

EU to accelerate membership negotiations with Turkey

The European Union will continue its membership negotiations with Turkey next month despite reservations by France and other EU nations.

Olli Rehn, the EU official in charge of the 27-nation bloc's expansion, said the talks would progress into two new policy areas - health and consumer policies and transport on Dec. 18. Talks in several other areas remain frozen by the EU because of Ankara's difficult relations with EU member Cyprus.

However, other EU nations - some of which oppose Turkish membership - will have to agree to move the talks forward.

France is unlikely to offer its backing without prior agreement on its own request for a panel of experts to be set up to consider the EU's future, in particular whether it should continue to take in new member nations. EU leaders are to name the panel at a Dec. 14 summit.

The EU is divided over whether Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country of 71 million people, should join. The talks are expected to last at least a decade.

The negotiations have been troubled from their outset in 2005. They stalled a year later when the EU froze negotiations on eight of 35 "negotiating chapters" because of Ankara's refusal to open its ports to trade with Cyprus, an EU member since 2004.

The eight will not be opened until Turkey allows Greek Cypriot planes and vessels to use Turkish ports and airports.

Foreign Minister Ali Babacan led a Turkish delegation in negotiations on Tuesday.

He told reporters afterward that Turkey's EU membership prospects must not be held hostage by "short-term political interests," an apparent reference to French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who opposes Turkey joining the union.

In an annual review released this month, the EU head office said Turkey must improve minority rights, enhance freedom of expression and religion and press ahead with other crucial reforms.

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