ANKARA (AFP) - France and Turkey said Friday they would work to mend fences and seek closer cooperation, despite lingering disputes over Ankara’s EU membership bid and the Armenian massacres of the Ottoman era.
"We share a desire to improve our ties in every field... I see our talks today as the beginning of a new impetus in bilateral relations," Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said after talks with visiting French counterpart Bernard Kouchner.
Kouchner was the highest-level French official to visit Ankara since Nicolas Sarkozy, a staunch opponent of Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, was elected president in May.
Sarkozy argues that most of Turkey’s territory is in Asia and that the idea of a united Europe would be diluted if its borders stretch that far. He has instead proposed a close partnership agreement with Turkey.
Ankara has slammed Sarkozy’s stance, insisting that full membership is the the only objective of its accession talks.
Pledging that Turkey would pursue its democratic reforms to catch up with European norms, Babacan stressed that "we expect the EU to stay loyal to the promises that it has made to Turkey."
Kouchner said the talks had laid the ground for an extensive dialogue on Turkey’s EU aspirations.
"Our relations had cooled a bit. I hope they will warm up in the coming days," he said.
Kouchner said he hoped a French bill passed in October 2006 calling for jail sentences for those who deny that Ottoman Turks committed genocide against Armenians during World War I would not stand in the way of improving ties.
Turkey has threatened unspecified measures against the bill, which followed a 2001 French parliament resolution, which had already poisoned bilateral ties, recognising the killings as genocide.
In a newspaper interview published Friday, Kouchner insisted that Turkey’s EU accession talks were an "open-ended" process that did not guarantee membership.
Sarkozy told Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the UN general assembly in New York last month that the negotiations would lead to closer ties between Turkey and the EU, "even though we disagree on the ultimate goal of these talks," Kouchner told Milliyet.
"Therefore, everything is open-ended today," he said, adding that a debate on the future of Europe was also needed.
Turkey conducted far-reaching reforms to win the green light for accession talks in October 2005 despite strong opposition in European public opinion, notably in France.
Last year, its bid took a serious blow when the EU, in response to Ankara’s refusal to grant trade privileges to Cyprus, suspended talks in eight of 35 policy areas candidates must negotiate.
Kouchner said France wants to cooperate with Turkey in the field of energy in particular and would try to overcome Turkish opposition to the participation of Gaz de France (GDF) in the Nabucco pipeline project to carry natural gas from the Middle East and Central Asia to the EU via Turkey and the Balkans.
"This is a very important issue for France and I hope for speedy progress," he told Milliyet.
The Turkish gas company BOTAS is reportedly blocking GDF’s inclusion in the project in retaliation for the Armenian genocide bill.
Kouchner said France also backs a strong Turkish role in resolving regional issues such as the turmoil in Iraq, the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme, the instability in Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Kouchner was to meet Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul before wrapping up his visit late Friday.
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