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Turkey sees Hollande lifting EU veto

Turkey expects France to unblock talks if it is ever to join the EU

Francois Hollande. Picture: AFP

ISTANBUL - Turkey expects France to unblock talks that are essential if it is ever to join the European Union, now that Socialist President Francois Hollande has replaced Nicolas Sarkozy who was outspoken in opposing the Muslim country's bid to join the bloc.

"We are entering a new period in relations with France after Hollande's election," EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis said in an interview late on Tuesday. "It now makes sense for the block that stemmed from Sarkozy's own personal whim to be lifted."

Hollande has backed away from Sarkozy's stark opposition to Turkey entering the EU but any shift in position from Paris will have more symbolic resonance than practical effect.

Turkey began talks in 2005 but has only completed one of the 35 policy "chapters" that every candidate must conclude to join the EU. Bagis expects Paris to lift its veto on talks about five chapters, but even that would leave other areas stalled.

All but 13 chapters are blocked by France, Cyprus - the island state which Turkey does not recognise - and the European Commission, the EU's executive arm which says Turkey does not yet meet the required standards on human rights and freedom of speech and religion.

Ankara said last week it would restore all ties with France after Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan met Hollande, smoothing over a row about the World War One killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks.

Last year Turkey cancelled economic, political and military meetings with Paris after the French parliament voted to make it illegal to deny that the massacres were genocide. The law was struck down by a top court.

While Hollande has stopped short of endorsing Turkey's EU candidacy, he has said it should be judged on political and economic criteria - a contrast to Sarkozy's position that Turkey did not form part of Europe.

But public opinion in France makes it difficult for politicians to explicitly back the candidacy. A survey by pollster IFOP in 2008 found 80 percent of the French were opposed to Turkey joining, the highest among the seven EU countries questioned.

France's foreign ministry was not available for comment, but a French diplomatic source said that while the lifting of the Turkish sanctions "transforms our bilateral relations", no decision had yet been made on the accession talks.

"I think Bagis is going a little bit far. What we will do is to study at European level what is on the table with the Turks, the chapters etcetera, but at this stage we haven't defined a position," the source said.

Despite the slow progress, Turkey still expects to join the EU before 2023, the centenary of its founding as a secular republic, Bagis said, adding that the euro zone's economic crisis was no deterrent.

"This economic crisis will soon be over, and the EU will continue to be the grandest peace project in the history of mankind," he said. "As a Muslim, secular democracy ... what Turkey can do is turn this continental peace project into a global one."