ANKARA (Reuters) - EU-candidate Turkey will freeze relations with the European Union if Cyprus is given the EU presidency in 2012, Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay was quoted as saying by the state-run news agency Anatolian late on Saturday.
The comments could signal a new low point in ties between the European Union and Turkey which began accession talks to the bloc in 2005.
They come at a time of heightened tension in the eastern Mediterranean where Turkey is locked in a row with Cyprus over potential offshore gas deposits and Turkey’s relations with one-time ally Israel are frayed.
“If the peace negotiations there (Cyprus) are not conclusive, and the EU gives its rotating presidency to southern Cyprus, the real crisis will be between Turkey and the EU,” Anatolian quoted Atalay as telling Turkish Cypriot Bayrak Radio and TV at the end of a trip to northern Cyprus.
“Because we will then freeze our relations with the EU. We have made this announcement, as a government we have made this decision. Our relations with the EU will come to a sudden halt.”
Officials at the European Commission in Brussels were not immediately available for comment.
The internationally-recognized Greek Cypriot government is due to take on the six-month rotating EU presidency in July 2012.
Cyprus has been divided since a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup. U.N.-sponsored peace talks between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots have stumbled since they were relaunched in 2008.
In July, Turkey’s European Union minister said freezing ties with the Greek Cypriot EU presidency was “an option.” While Muslim Turkey started accession talks in 2005, progress has been slow, largely because of the conflict with Cyprus.
The EU says Ankara must meet a pledge to open up traffic from the Greek Cypriot part of the island under a deal known as the Ankara protocol. Turkey says the EU should end its blockade of the Turkish Cypriot enclave.
Adding to tensions is an escalating row between Turkey and Cyprus over Greek Cypriot plans to launch gas explorations around the island.
Turkey has voiced strong opposition to the plans and on Saturday Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Cyprus’ plans amounted to “provocation” and it would consider carrying out its own offshore surveys with northern Cyprus if drilling went ahead.
The Greek Cypriot government has said it would block Turkey’s EU-entry talks if Ankara continued to oppose the plans. The United Nations has appealed for a peaceful resolution to the dispute, saying both sides of the island should benefit from any energy reserves.
The European Union, this month, told Turkey not to issue threats against Cyprus. Stoking tension in the eastern Mediterranean is a sharp deterioration in relations between Turkey and Israel following the 2010 killing of Turkish activists in an Israeli raid on a ship bound for Gaza.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Turkish warships could be sent to the eastern Mediterranean at any time and Israel could not do whatever it wants there [nL5E7KF1LE].
Greek Cypriots represent Cyprus internationally and in the European Union, while Turkey is the only country to recognize the Turkish Cypriot state. Greek Cypriots say Turkey cannot join the bloc until the Cyprus conflict is resolved.
The rotating presidency has lost some importance since the EU’s Lisbon treaty, which established a permanent head of the European Council that groups national governments, and a new foreign and security policy chief. But a determined country can still shape the agenda.
Of the 35 “chapters” — policy areas of EU law — Turkey has completed one, and 18 have been frozen because of opposition by EU member states including Cyprus and France.
Reporting by Jonathon Burch; editing by Rosalind Russell