Blair in Turkey, then Mideast

Mr Blair flew in from Brussels, where he had attended a two-day summit of
European Union leaders that endorsed the partial suspension of Turkey’s accession talks, mainly over an unresolved trade dispute with EU member
Cyprus.

London has been one of Ankara’s strongest supporters in its attempt to join the 25-member bloc, arguing that its accession could bridge the gap between
East and West, Christian and Muslim, and help stabilise the Middle East.

Mr Blair was expected to reiterate his government’s support for Turkey’s reform program when he meets Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for talks.

Before leaving Brussels, Blair said EU leaders had given very firm indications that they favoured further enlargement, provided candidate countries meet the entry criteria.

But the summit also decided that the EU must carry out internal institutional reforms before further expansion amid concerns about the pace of enlargement and the bloc’s ability to absorb new members.

Critics of Turkey’s bid say that although the government has made significant progress it still has work to do such as improving its human rights record and over Cyprus.

But Mr Blair said: “For the broader global interests of the EU and also
Britain, it is important that we continue the process to accession with Turkey and we do not shut the door to Turkey’s membership.

He also linked the issue with the situation in the Middle East.

“It is also part, at least, of the backdrop to the broader Middle East and in particular to trying to make sure that if there is any way possible at all, we should try to achieve a Palestinian government with which we and the rest of the world can deal,” Mr Blair said.

That would help countries release vital foreign aid to the Palestinian people as well as ensure movement towards a situation where Israel’s security is protected and a viable, stable Palestinian state is created, he added.

EU leaders focused their efforts on Friday on agreeing a common line of support for reigniting the Middle East peace process amid heightened tensions in Gaza and Lebanon, Mr Blair said.

“There was a consensus round the table that it is of immense strategic importance for Europe that there is progress again between Israel and Palestine and that we get a resolution on issues to do with Lebanon and support strongly the efforts of the democratically elected government in Lebanon,” he said.

But Mr Blair’s spokesman told reporters travelling on the prime minister’s chartered British Airways Boeing 747 that the premier was not taking any specific EU proposals to resolving the impasse.

The spokesman declined to say what Britain’s position was on whether it supported achieving progress through a national unity government or via fresh elections, such as those proposed by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr Blair, who last visited the region in September, is due to leave office in the next nine months and sees making progress on peace and democracy as a vital part of his legacy.

But his office played down the overall aims of the trip, saying he was going in “listening mode”, acting as a “facilitator” between those involved.

“There’s not a rabbit we’re trying to pull out of the hat. What there is a renewed sense of momentum.

“If there’s a better sense of what the next steps are, that gives us a basis for a new sense of direction,” his spokesman said.

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