Turkey and the European Union: Don’t despair

Turkey and the European Union: Don’t despair

Opinion piece (Open democracy)
Katinka Barysch
27 November 2006

The accession of Turkey to the European Union is beset by troubles. It needn’t be if both sides concentrate on the positives, the big picture and the long term, says Katinka Barysch.

The relationship between Turkey and the European Union, never easy, has taken a turn for the worse. The dispute over Cyprus - involving Turkey's refusal of access of goods from the (Greek) Republic of Cyprus to its ports and airports, and rejection of compromise proposals involving the opening of the port of Famagusta in the unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to trade with the EU - is the latest phase of a lengthy period of discontent on both sides.

The breakdown of talks on 27 November 2006 in Tampere, Finland - the current holder of the rotating EU presidency - signals the further entrenchment of this tension. Erkki Tuomioja, the Finnish foreign minister, who had hosted separate meetings with his counterparts from Turkey (Abdullah Gül) and Cyprus (George Lillikas), said that the failure to reach agreement would have consequences for Turkey's accession talks; "Business as usual cannot continue."

It is hardly an auspicious sign on the eve of the already controversial visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Turkey from 28-30 November. The pope's visit may not be a European Union matter, but the political background reinforces existing arguments - brought to the fore in the wake of the pope's Regensburg address of 12 September - that religious and historical differences render Turkey and Europe incompatible as long-term partners.

In October 2005, when the European Union started accession talks with Turkey, few could have anticipated such an outcome. The mood then was a mixture of relief, excitement and some apprehension. EU entry was finally in sight. But would Turkey be up to the technical complexities?

Thirteen months on, more than 2,000 Turkish experts and officials are busy with accession preparations. Brussels bureaucrats describe the Turkish team as efficient, focused and committed. The "screening"process, in which Turkish rules are compared with EU requirements, is on course to be completed by the end of 2006. And the reason why Turkey has so far negotiated only one of the thirty-five "chapters"of the acquis communautaire is that Cyprus (which entered the EU in May 2004 as part of the enlargement to ten new member-states) is blocking further progress.

Technically, Turkish accession is progressing as well as can be expected. But politically it is in trouble. Excitement has given way to disillusionment on both sides. The EU is concerned about Turkey's slowing reforms and its refusal to honour pledges over Cyprus. Turks are angry that the EU is making politically unacceptable demands, without even being able to guarantee that Turkey will eventually join the EU.

The forthcoming presidential (May 2007) and legislative (November 2007) elections in Turkey, and those next year in key EU states such as France, have raised the political heat even further. If mutual recrimination and incomprehension get worse, Turkey's accession could stall or even fail. Turkey would lose its "anchor" for reforms. The EU would lose credibility and a valuable partner. Both sides need to rethink, and quickly.

Here, then, are three pithy recommendations on the leading areas of concern surrounding the Turkey-EU relationship.

EU talks: be constructive!

Turkish politicians need to be constructive and keep their eyes on the big prize: eventual European Union membership. Turks complain a lot about double standards and unfair treatment. The EU is partly to blame: it spends a miserly €1 million a year on communication in Turkey - obviously not enough to make Turks understand how enlargement works.

Accession is always tough, not only for Turkey. France under Charles de Gaulle twice (1963, and 1966-67) vetoed Britain's accession. Spain's accession negotiations went nowhere for five long years, as existing members worried about its impact on EU farm policies. Poland was told it would join in 2000 - and entered only four years later.

It is true that the enlargement process has changed since the last big round in 2004. But these changes are not necessarily directed against Turkey. Croatia is subject to the same tough criteria as Turkey, but it does not see these conditions as an anti-Croatian plot.

Accession has become tougher, but it has also become more objective. At one time, political judgment was the only measure of progress. Today there are "benchmarks" for each step in the negotiations, and the European commission checks meticulously whether candidate countries implement EU laws. In its strategy report on enlargement issued on 8 November 2006, the commission suggested that the "benchmarks" used in accession negotiations should be made public: a good idea, because this would make it harder for existing member countries to block negotiations on say, competition policy or environmental rules because of disputes over borders or property they have with the candidate in question.

Turks scowl when the likes of Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schussel (the German and Austrian chancellors) call for a "privileged partnership" instead of full membership. But Turkey needs to remember that, just like EU-critical remarks coming from Ankara, such calls are primarily meant for home consumption. The fact is that the EU has stuck to its decision to negotiate with Turkey with the objective of full membership.

Europeans will continue to debate whether this is good or bad - as they should in an open, democratic society. Rather than pouncing on pre-election statements in EU capitals or reports by the European parliament, the Turkish leadership needs to calm down its voters before support for EU membership drops further.

Cyprus: muddle through!

The division of Cyprus is the most urgent, controversial and convoluted issue on the EU-Turkey agenda. Turkey has committed to extending its customs union with the EU to the new member-states, which involves opening up its ports and airports to ships registered in Cyprus. Ankara now says it will only do so if the Europeans honour their own pledge to open up for trade with Northern Cyprus. But the (Greek) Cypriot government uses its EU veto on the trade question, and some western European politicians say that EU talks should be stopped if Turkey does not open its ports.

The news from Tampere on 27 November is the clearest indication that the Finnish government's mediation efforts have gone nowhere. The European commission in early November postponed making a recommendation on whether the negotiations should be - wholly or partly - suspended. But the Brussels summit of EU heads of state and government on 14 December (three days after a foreign-ministers' summit) will have to make or confirm a decision on this.

EU leaders should bear in mind that the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government has little room for manoeuvre ahead of Turkey's national elections, the first since his moderate Islamist Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development Party / AKP) came to power in November 2002. Any concessions would play into the hands of Turkey's nationalist opposition. Many Turks feel that, since it was the Greek Cypriots who in 2004 voted down the Kofi Annan plan for reunification (which would have allowed a united Cyprus to enter the EU), it is Nicosia that has to move first.

However important Cyprus is, it is not worth calling off the accession talks over the issue. Turkey would probably be asked to make even bigger concessions before it could resume negotiations. And Cyprus would forego the last chance of having a negotiated settlement.

The best the EU and Turkey can do for now is to muddle through until after the Turkish elections. If Turkey - as still seems likely - refuses to open its ports by the 6 December deadline which the European commission is working towards, Brussels could suspend accession talks on only those chapters that are narrowly related to the customs union. That would not be a disaster, for two reasons. First, Turkey already has a customs union with the EU, so there has already been a lot of progress in many of the areas affected; second, if the EU put part of the negotiations on ice, that would still leave Turkey with twenty-five or thirty other "chapters" to get on with.

In the meantime, the EU should press Cyprus to allow for trade opening. And the Turks should agree to confidence-building measures to prepare the ground for a resumption of United Nations-sponsored talks on reunification.

PR: highlight the positive!

A third issue that is turning the Turks off EU accession is public hostility in western Europe. Fewer than half the citizens in the twenty-five EU member-states want any more EU members, and the prospect of Turkish entry is particularly controversial. In a survey of the "national brands" of thirty-five existing and potential EU member-states, Turkey consistently comes last. More than 80% of Austrians, 60% of Germans and 50% of French people are against Turkish membership, and Austria and France are committed to holding a referendum on Turkish accession.

However, Turks should not be too discouraged by the polls, for three reasons. First, in ten out of twenty-five EU countries, there are more people in favour of Turkish accession than against. Second, opposition to future enlargement is related to economic uncertainties and a more general disillusionment with the EU; but eurozone growth is picking up, and the EU is regaining popularity in many places. Third, these prejudices are superficial and largely based on ignorance.

However, boring government public relations campaigns will not overcome prejudice. What Turkey and the EU need to do is to highlight the positive aspects of the "new Turkey": the political reforms, which are bringing it closer to the European mainstream; its dynamic economy and increasingly close business links with the EU; its vibrant culture, including food, music and sports; its attractiveness for holiday-makers; and its (hopefully) constructive and professional approach to EU accession. It is still far too early for Turkey and the European Union to give up on each other.