Some advice for Turkey

Some advice for Turkey

Bulletin article
Katinka Barysch
01 December 2005

Turkey remains far from its goal of entering the EU, despite starting accession talks in October and gaining a broadly favourable progress report from the European Commission in November. Major political issues – such as the Cyprus problem, the human rights situation in Turkey or referendums on Turkish membership in France, Austria or elsewhere – could delay or even block membership. However, few Turks realize that the EU accession talks themselves – which could last ten years harbour many pitfalls.

The Commission gave an indication of how difficult the negotiations will be when it released its annual assessment of Turkey’s accession preparations. Turkey now fulfils two of the four accession criteria: it “sufficiently” lives up to EU political standards and it qualifies as a “functioning market economy”. The Commission also thinks that Turkey will fulfil the other economic criterion – the ability to compete in the single market – in the medium term. But the bulk of the 150-page report is devoted to the last accession criterion: the candidate’s ability to adopt and implement the acquis (the EU’s accumulated rulebook).

To get a better idea of the task at hand, the EU and Turkey will spend the next year or so ‘screening’ Turkish law. The EU has cut its 80,000-page rulebook into 35 manageable ‘chapters’ for the negotiations. Some of these chapters will be rather straightforward, for example those on statistics or industrial policy. But most of them will be tricky, either because they are technically complex or because they are politically controversial. For example, Turkey will need scores of experts and billions of euros of investment to comply with EU environmental rules.

As was the case for the Central and East European candidates, Turkey can hope to gain lengthy ‘transition periods’ to continue this work after its accession. Similarly daunting are EU rules for food safety, which make up as much as 40 per cent of the acquis. Every Turkish chicken farmer, yogurt producer and winemaker will eventually have to comply – or close down.

Moreover, some seemingly innocuous chapters are potentially explosive. For example, the free movement of capital entails the right of wealthy Europeans to buy up Turkey’s coastline. And to fully comply with rules of the customs union, Turkey will have to open up its ports to ships sailing under the Cypriot flag – a step that some Turkish nationalists equate with recognising the Republic of Cyprus. Turkish politicians are also fuming over demands by some EU countries that they should be allowed to impose permanent restrictions on the free movement of Turkish labour.

The Turkish government needs to tread carefully around the minefield of these negotiations. If it studies the experience of previous candidates, and asks the advice of old enlargement hands in the Commission, it will learn some lessons:

• Do take a positive attitude to the accession talks. Turkey needs to reconfirm again and again that it will do whatever it takes to join the EU. It should not threaten to walk away from the negotiations and thus throw their outcome into doubt – it is enough that EU governments talk about their ‘open-ended’ nature. The more levelheaded Turkey manages to be, the more unreasonable its opponents will appear.

• Don’t expect real ‘negotiations’. The accession process is mostly about Turkey adopting EU rules and regulations. The acquis is a body of law that has grown over decades and often embodies fragile compromises among the EU countries. It is not up for negotiation. So real negotiations will be the exception rather than the rule, and they will be mostly about transition periods.

• Don’t oppose the EU’s new idea of ‘benchmarks’. The EU has decided to set down objective criteria that must be fulfilled, before each chapter can be opened or closed. During the talks with the East Europeans, the EU’s decision to close a chapter often appeared arbitrary and political. So Turkey may be better off with benchmarks.

• Do streamline your negotiation team. Turkey's current negotiating set-up – with the central team having little sway over the relevant ministries and departments – is a recipe for infighting and delays. The East European countries wasted valuable time before they realised that the chief negotiator needs clear authority over line ministries.

• Don’t wait until the EU presents you with a common position. Turkey should try to influence politicians, parliamentarians, NGOs and the media in each member-state, before the EU comes up with a common position. By the time ‘Coreper’ (the member-states’ EU ambassadors) or the Council of Ministers has reached a common stance, it may be too late to extract concessions.

• Do ensure that the whole of Turkish society backs EU accession. Those East European countries that had a strong national consensus in favour of EU membership made the fastest progress towards it. Turkish politicians should not depict EU accession as a ‘battle’ that needs to be won. Instead, they should explain the benefits of EU membership to the Turkish people.

• Don’t present yourself as a special case. It is true that Turkey is strategically more important for the EU than many previous candidates. However, geostrategic advantages do not count for much at the negotiating table, and will not help to erode opposition to Turkish entry. For smooth negotiations, Turkey needs to prove that it is an effective and trustworthy partner. To win over EU public opinion, it needs to present itself as a ‘normal’ European country.

• Do remember the people of the EU. Turkey’s accession will depend not only on reaching agreement with the Commission and the EU governments but also on convincing EU electorates, some of which will vote yes or no to Turkey in referendums. So far, Turkey’s public relations efforts have alternated between being non-existent and inept. Turkey needs a centrally-driven PR strategy, designed to win the hearts and minds of European citizens. Turkey should spare no expense to invite influential journalists, parliamentarians and leaders of NGOs to visit the country.


These recommendations are based on the proceedings of the 2nd Bosphorus conference, organised by the CER, TESEV and the British Council in Istanbul in October 2005.

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