Merkel backs new EU talks for Turkey but has doubts
BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Saturday she favored new talks to revive Turkey's stalled European Union membership bid, following warnings by the Turkish prime minister its half-century wait was "unforgivable".
Yet Merkel, who favors a "privileged partnership" for Turkey in place of full EU membership, stressed the outcome of Ankara's talks with Brussels should be open, and she remained skeptical about whether Turkey should join.
Turkey has complained bitterly over Berlin's lack of support for its EU hopes, and has accused the EU of double-standards in conducting negotiations without full membership in mind.
Merkel made her comments in her regular weekly video message, a day before she sets off on a two-day visit to Turkey. Her defense minister visited German patriot missile batteries in Turkey, a fellow NATO member, on Saturday.
Socialist French President Francois Hollande said last week he was ready to unblock talks on the "chapter" or policy area dealing with help for EU regions. His conservative predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, strongly opposed Turkey's EU aspirations.
"I think a long negotiating path lies ahead of us. Although I am skeptical, I agreed with the continuation of membership discussions. We are engaging in these with an open result," Merkel said.
"In recent times, negotiations stalled somewhat and I am in favor of opening a new chapter in order to move forward."
Turkey's EU accession bid, launched in 2005, all but ground to a halt over an intractable dispute over the divided island of Cyprus, an EU member, and opposition from Paris and Berlin.
Turkey has completed only one of 35 policy "chapters" every accession candidate must conclude. All but 13 are blocked by France, Cyprus and the European Commission, which says Ankara does not meet standards on human rights and freedom of speech.
"Since Mrs Merkel came to office, she has repeatedly used the expression 'privileged partnership' about our European Union process. Yet when Germany had the rotating presidency, we were still able to secure the opening of certain chapters," Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul.
He expressed his hope for positive developments during Ireland's EU presidency which runs until July. Germany last held it in the first half of 2007.
"Now there is change in France and a difference in the views of Germany and France. Along with Chancellor Merkel's positive statement on opening chapters, these will pay off during Ireland's presidency," Erdogan added.
Turkey is increasingly frustrated at the wait and support among its citizens for joining the EU has waned. Erdogan called the delay "unforgivable" on February 4 and has warned the EU would lose Turkey if it was not granted full membership by 2023.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, from Merkel's Free Democrat (FDP) coalition partners called the standstill unsatisfactory in December and urged renewed vigor in talks.
Even some within Merkel's own Christian Democrats back fuller support for Turkey, risking the chancellor becoming more isolated in advocating 'privileged partnership'.
EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger, a CDU member, told newspaper Bild this week, "I'd like to bet that within the next decade, a German chancellor along with their colleagues from France will go begging on their knees to Ankara saying 'friends come to us'".
Ruprecht Polenz, head of the CDU's parliamentary foreign affairs committee, told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper on Saturday: "it is clear to most people in my party that the idea of 'privileged partnership' is defunct." Instead people should accept that negotiations will ultimately lead to membership.
(Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul and Andreas Rinke in Berlin; Editing by Jason Webb)
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