ISTANBUL, Sept 12: Turkey's ties with the European Union will suffer if European leaders fail to give the go-ahead in December for the start of accession talks with the mainly Muslim country, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned.

"I do not want to consider such a possibility, but I believe all our friends should think carefully on the possibility of a negative decision derailing our ties," Erdogan told a conference on his country's EU bid here on Saturday.

"In such a case, we cannot of course act as if nothing happened in our ties with the EU," Erdoagn added. He did not elaborate on the likely repercussions of a possible rejection by the bloc.

Turkey has been an official candidate for EU membership since 1999 but is the only country so far to have failed to begin membership talks with the 25-member bloc. EU leaders will decide at a crucial summit in December on whether the vast and relatively poor country with an overwhelmingly Muslim population but a strictly secular system has made sufficient progress in improving its democracy and human rights records to sit down at the negotiating table.

The decision will be based on a report the European Commission will release in October assessing how successful Turkey has been in embracing EU norms through a raft of reforms adopted since it became a candidate.

Expectations are rising that the Commission's report will be positive, but EU sources say five or six of the 30-strong Commission are either hostile to or have serious reservations about Turkey's application.

One vocal critic is EU farm commissioner Franz Fischler, who recently raised doubts about Turkey's long-term democratic and secular credentials in a letter to fellow commissioners.

In his letter, Fischler also warned that Turkey's inclusion could cost 11.3 billion euros (13.8 billion dollars) a year in agricultural subsidies and said the Union should have a plan B for Ankara such as "a special partnership status" rather membership.

Erdogan strongly denied that Turkey would place a financial load on the bloc and said there would be no fresh funds coming from the EU even if accession talks begin. "We are strong enough to take care of ourselves," he said. "Turkey has never been a burden on anyone and will not be a burden in the future."

Erdogan said Turkey had taken all the necessary steps to fulfil the political criteria required for accession talks to begin, but said time was needed to fully get the reforms off the ground, a key EU demand.

"Implementation means a change of mentality and undoubtedly requires time, but we will pursue this goal with determination," the prime minister said. He acknowledged that even if Turkey received a firm date for membership talks, actual membership would take a long time. EU sources and Turkish officials agree that it will take the country at least a decade to join the bloc. -AFP

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