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Dutch end EU helm trumpeting Turkey deal

By: EBR - Posted: Thursday, December 30, 2004

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The Netherlands ends its six-month European Union (EU) presidency this week trumpeting a historic deal to open membership talks with Turkey as the highlight of its term at the EU helm.
But the Netherlands' half year in charge, widely seen as a "transition presidency" after the EU's historic expansion in May, has not not been without its tricky diplomatic moments, diplomats note.
"The masterpiece of the Dutch presidency is the deal with Turkey," said one EU diplomat in Brussels as The Hague prepares to hand over the EU tiller to Luxembourg on January 1.
The Dutch presidency took charge at an in-between time for the EU: 10 new countries had just joined, a new Strasbourg parliament had been elected and the outgoing EU commission was serving out its last months in office.
"We started under very difficult circumstances with the formation of the commission and a new parliament but of course the final aim was Turkey," Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot told AFP.
On the foreign stage the Dutch presidency is keen to point out its quick reaction to the political crisis in Ukraine after flawed presidential elections in November.
Bot hailed the bloc's united stand over Ukraine as "a clear manifestation of the new found zest of Europe" -- underlining an emerging sense of EU self-confidence which has not gone unnoticed in the United States.
But as the crisis in the Ukraine unfolded in a parallel development the Dutch presidency had to fight to maintain a good relationship with Russia.
President Vladimir Putin was visibly irritated by EU involvement in the Ukraine crisis, only adding to friction which flared in September after Bot asked Moscow to clarify what had gone wrong in the Beslan school massacre.
"There have ... been some miscommunications in the area of foreign policy," said one Brussels diplomat.
Closer to home the Dutch presidency faced an unprecedented standoff in Brussels in October, when at the last minute EU lawmakers effectively vetoed the new EU commission days before it was due to take office.
All-out crisis was only narrowly avoided in the sidelines of the signing of the EU's historic constitution in Rome, when EU leaders managed to lean on Italy heavily enough to force a compromise accord.
On the nitty-gritty of EU policy The Hague is notably proud of agreeing a new five-year security and justice plan, with fighting terrorism a key priority as well as common asylum system by 2010 and tackling illegal immigration.
"It is not very exciting but it is darned difficult to get 25 member states to agree on asylum, police and penal law," said Bot.
But Turkey was always going to be the high point -- or potentially a very low point -- of the Dutch EU leadership.
There was widespread praise for Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's handling of high-stakes haggling with Turkey at a mid-December summit which finally gave the green light to Ankara, albeit with a raft of tough conditions.
But diplomats note that the EU's 'big boys' like Britain's Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had to step in when Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to budge on the crunch issue of Cyprus at the crucial juncture.
Bot, a seasoned player in the EU's corridors of power, was philosophical about the Dutch record.
"The (EU) presidency was not flat," he conceded, in a reference to the diplomatic bumps over the last six months. "We got dealt a bad hand but I think we played it very well," he said.

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