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NEWS & COMMENTARY 2008 SPEAKERS 2007 2006 2005

Thursday, November 09, 2006

EU politics: Where now for Turkey?


The European Commission's report on Turkey's progress towards EU accession, released on November 8th, was less critical than might have been expected from official comments made in preceding days. For example, the Commission commended Turkey's progress on political reforms, despite their recent slowdown. However, on other issues the EU has been sterner. It was, for example, insistent that Turkey opens its ports and airports to Cypriot trade as part of Turkey's customs union obligations with the EU, irrespective of whether the EU does the same for trade from Turkish northern Cyprus. This particular dispute has become a major point of contention on all sides, but it obscures the larger, and far more important, issue of the future of EU-Turkish relations.

The next six weeks will be a crucial time for both Turkey and the EU. For Turkey, EU accession negotiations offer the possibility of being recognised as a full democracy, whose values are compatible with those which emerged in Western Europe after the Second World War. Membership would provide a clear home for a country located in an unstable region at a time when NATO, of which Turkey was a crucial component in the cold war, has weakened. For the secularists influenced by the Ataturk tradition it would root Turkey firmly in a continent which provided most of the inspiration for Ataturk's vision of a post-Ottoman Turkey. For the Islamicists, who form an important part of the governing AK party, it would be recognition that they have a constructive role to play in the modern world, while setting boundaries on what they could do. For the business community, EU membership would guarantee that moves over the last few years to open the economy, reduce state interference and build financial stability would continue.

Closer relations with Turkey are also crucial to the EU's ambition to develop its foreign policy. The key aim of EU foreign policy should be to contribute to peace and stability, particularly in Europe's broader neighbourhood, including the mainly Islamic world that runs from Morocco to Pakistan. Closer relations with Turkey, and eventual Turkish membership, should increase its influence in the region; a breakdown of relations with Turkey, the most westernised of countries with Muslim populations, would be likely to carry the message that Europe and Islam have conflicting cultures, and so reduce EU influence. Such a breakdown would be seen, in the same way in the US, as confirming that the EU is inward-looking and unwilling to increase its role in the region.

None of this is to suggest that the EU should in any way relax its conditions for membership as set out in the Copenhagen criteria, which require a well-functioning democracy, the rule of law and respect for human and minority rights. On these points, Turkey made much progress between 2000 and 2005 but such progress has slowed. There are political reasons for the slowdown, some internal to Turkey but some related to the EU with major member states, such as France, Germany and the Netherlands perceived to have turned hostile to Turkey. This has reduced the incentive to make progress, and also drastically reduced popular support in Turkey for EU membership from around two-thirds in 2004, to one-third today.

Two-way traffic

The Commission cannot be blamed for the consequences of its report. On the contrary it is absolutely essential that it does not pull its punches about this, since meeting the entry criteria is crucial for closer relations and eventual accession, and is also vital for Turkey's long-term stability. But if there is a breakdown in the negotiations it will not be because of the Commission's criticisms of political reforms in Turkey but because of the Cyprus question. Cyprus feels itself justified in vetoing further negotiations while Turkey has not fulfilled its commitment as a member of the EU customs union to open its ports and airports to Cypriot ships and planes. And the Commission feels that in its role as guardian of the treaties it must itself insist on the opening of ports. Looked at from the Turkish side, their case appears equally strong. The not officially-recognised Turkish authorities in northern Cyprus were offered informal promises by EU countries when the Turkish side endorsed the Annan Plan for ending the division of the island in 2004 that they would open trade with Turkish Cyprus. But this commitment has not been met, owing to the veto of (Greek) Cyprus now an EU member state.

The Finnish EU presidency has been trying hard to negotiate a deal between Turkey and Cyprus whereby the port of Famagusta would be opened for trade from northern Cyprus while Greek Cypriots could move into the currently disused former Greek town of Varosha, located near the port on the Turkish Cypriot side of the border. Such details seem arcane but how they are handled in the next few weeks--in terms of the EU member states other than Cyprus acting together to put pressure on Turkey and Cyprus to unblock the issue (the broader Cyprus question itself can only be resolved over a much longer term horizon)--will affect the image the EU presents to the outside world.

If a matter of such major importance as Turkish-EU relations are wrecked by a failure to overcome a logjam on such a small matter, the EU's credibility as an organisation to be taken seriously will be undermined. If there were a suspicion, whether true or not, that such failure were caused not just by the veto power of Cyprus but by a deep split between and within other member states over the issue of eventual Turkish accession, this would do even more damage.
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