The sources of the trouble once again were the divided island of Cyprus and the growing hostility in France towards mainly Muslim Turkey's future membership.

On 2 August, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin appeared to place a new condition on Turkey starting EU accession talks, which are scheduled to begin on 3 October.

Cyprus demand

"It doesn't seem conceivable to me that a negotiation process of whatever kind can start with a country that does not recognise every member state of the European Union, in other words all 25 of them," he told Europe 1 Radio.

Recognising the Greek Cypriot-dominated Republic of Cyprus would be a deeply unpopular move in Turkey, which has long had hostile relations with the Greek Cypriots.

Ankara does not recognise the
Nicosia government

Ankara has not recognised the government in Nicosia since Turkey invaded the island in 1974, after a coup d'etat by Greek nationalists tried to unite the island with Greece.

The Turkish leadership reacted angrily to De Villepin's statement, with Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan saying that Ankara could not accept such a condition.

"We are saddened by the statements of the French prime minister," he said. "We don't want it to be like this. From now on, we are getting ready for 3 October."

Strong statement

A leading Turkish columnist said it was the first time Erdogan made such a strong statement regarding relations with the EU. "He made it clear that Turkey could never accept such an extra condition," said Ferai Tinc of the Turkish daily Hurriyet

Turkish leader Erdogan ruled out
any conditions over Cyprus

Cyprus became an EU member in May 2004, after its citizens rejected a UN plan to reunify the island, which has been effectively divided since the Turkish invasion.

Turkey does not have diplomatic relations with Cyprus and recognises only the Turkish Cypriot-dominated north of the island.

This created problems in December, when EU leaders met to decide whether Turkey should be allowed to begin accession talks.

'Unilateral gesture'

In the end, a deal was worked out that stopped short of Turkey formally recognising Cyprus. Ankara signed a customs union agreement with the EU that included Cyprus at the end of July.

"To not want to recognise a country in the union while wanting to enter it is just not acceptable"

Dominique de Villepin,
French prime minister

However, at the same time, Ankara also issued a statement saying that its extension of the customs union did not mean it was recognising the Republic of Cyprus, a move designed to head off opposition in Turkey to any deals with the Greek Cypriots.

This statement rankled Paris.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said it was "a unilateral gesture that poses a serious problem... To not want to recognise a country in the union while wanting to enter it is just not acceptable."

The key EU state felt this statement went against what was arranged in December.

Cyprus an excuse?

Few in Turkey, however, think this is really the issue. Instead, many accuse France of being opposed to Turkey's EU entry for other reasons while using Cyprus as a cover.

"The decision on Turkey's accession talks was taken back in December 2004," says Hakan Yilmaz, professor of Political Science at Istanbul's prestigious Bogazici University.

Rehn is confident that talks will
start in October

"Everyone knew that recognition of Cyprus was not involved. The French are simply trying to find something to use. But if they are opposed to Turkish membership, they should say so, rather than hiding behind the Greek Cypriots."

Opinions in France on Turkey joining the EU are largely negative - a recent opinion poll by the PSOS research group for Le Figaro newspaper showed that 56% were against Turkey joining in the immediate future.

French diplomats who spoke to Aljazeera.net on condition of anonymity stressed that the government in Paris is under pressure from within the main governing Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) party to follow public opinion.

Greek Cyprus support

"Turkey has to understand the internal pressures the government is under. This statement on not recognising Cyprus was not helpful," one diplomat said.

"There can't be any abandonment of the EU path by Turkey ... At the same time, I don't think the EU can abandon Turkey either"

Ferai Tinc, columnist, 
Turkish daily Hurriyet

On the island itself, France's statement was welcomed by the Greek Cypriots.

Government spokesman Kypros Chrysostomides said De Villepin's statement was "particularly positive".

"We have always stated that it is inconceivable for a country that wants to accede into the EU not to recognise a full EU member state," he said.

Divided island

Yet insisting on recognition of Cyprus by Turkey may be counter-productive, argues James Ker-Lindsay of the Nicosia-based think tank CIVILITAS Research.

Observers say Turkey's EU entry
is key to a Cyprus peace deal

"This is a step too far," he says. "On the one hand, the government and its supporters are desperate for recognition and are overjoyed by this, but on the other there is a distinct sense of nervousness. The problem is that if Turkish membership is effectively vetoed, then that kills off any chance of a settlement on the island."

Relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots are at their worst for many years.

Talks on reuniting the divided island have not resumed after the failure of the last UN plan in April 2004. "There are very little grounds for thinking we will see a resumption of talks any time soon," says Ker-Lindsay.

October talks

Ankara has long maintained it has no problem recognising Cyprus once a settlement has been agreed. In this context, the French comments appear to go against previous thinking by Britain, the current EU president, which has argued that talks with Turkey on EU accession should go ahead in parallel with talks to reunite the island.

At the same time, EU officials insist that the 3 October talks will commence even if there is no recognition of Cyprus by Turkey.

"If we stick to what we have ourselves decided at the highest political level, as we should, I am reasonably confident that the negotiations shall start on 3 October," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said after the French statement.

Meanwhile, many Turks continue to put a brave face on developments.

"There can't be any abandonment of the EU path by Turkey," says Tinc. "At the same time, I don't think the EU can abandon Turkey either."