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23rd Jul 2016

Turkey opens environment chapter in EU accession talks

Turkey and the European Union on Monday (21 December) opened the environment chapter of negotiations in the nation's bid to join the bloc.

With the move, the Anatolian state creeps further towards its goal, having now opened 12 out of the total of 35 negotiating chapters.

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  • FM Davutoglu is frustrated that other countries have been awarded visa-free travel ahead of Turkey (Photo: EUobserver)

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency, said Ankara had now moved on to a harder level in talks.

"We have taken the decision to open the (negotiating) chapter on the environment. It means Turkey is taking a qualitative step towards a more demanding stage in the negotiations," he said.

Turkey has a number of pressing environmental concerns, notably chemical and detergent pollution in its waters and heavily contaminated Black sea, as well as poor urban air quality as a result of burning heating fuel, high levels of car ownership and under-developed public transportation.

Industry, particularly cement, sugar, fertiliser and metallurgy, often lacks modern filtration equipment. Some 70 percent of Turkish land surface is affected by soil erosion, resulting in the loss of one billion tonnes of topsoil a year.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the government first started to take environmental protection seriously with the establishment of an environment ministry in 1991. The potential for EU membership was a major driver of this shift, although since 2003 enforcement has suffered.

To close the environment chapter, Ankara will have to implement new environmental legislation that brings the country up to European standards.

At the meeting in Brussels, attended by foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, environment minister Veysel Eroğlu and chief negotiator Egemen Bağış, Mr Davutoglu expressed his disappointment at the slow pace of talks, saying he would have hoped to see a more rapid advance in talks.

"We would have hoped to have moved more chapters for negotiations," he said. Compared to other EU accession candidates, Turkey's bid is moving extremely slowly. The Turkish ministers in Brussels noted with frustration how other, newer applicants - Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia were offered visa-free travel.

"There is no excuse not to give those rights to Turkish citizens," said the foreign minister.

Having opened EU talks in 2005, eight chapters have been frozen since 2006 due to Ankara's refusal to open its borders to the Greek part of the divided island of Cyprus, a member of the EU.

Just over a week ago, Cyprus failed to block the opening of the environment chapter , but said it would set new hurdles in other areas.

After hours of prolonged talks amongst EU foreign ministers in which Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt is said to have 'literally made them sign', the ministers decided to open talks on Turkey's environmental policies. At the time, Cypriot foreign minister Markos Kyprianou said his country did not oppose the move but would in future veto talks in six other areas: labour mobility, fundamental rights, justice system, education, foreign policy and energy.

So far, only one chapter, the largely uncontroversial category of science and research policy, has been closed.

France, Germany and Austria have led the charge against the majority Muslim country joining the bloc, while the UK, Scandinavia and some eastern European countries favour Turkey's eventual entry.

Earlier this month, Turkey's Constitutional Court banned the Democratic Society Party (Demokratik Toplum Partisi, DTP), a social democratic Kurdish political party, provoking concern by the Swedish EU presidency, which called upon Ankara to reform its legislation on political parties.

Critics accuse the DTP of maintaining links to the militant Kurdish Workers' Party (Parti Karkerani Kurdistan, PKK), although Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat, former deputy chairman of the governing centre-right Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi AKP) said of the court decision: "Turkey has become a graveyard for political parties that have been shut down. Closing political parties does not bring any benefit to Turkey."

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