By Emily Boutler
September 2011 was an eventful month for European-Turkish relations. Trouble first began when Cyprus’s President Demetris Christofias announced in early August that his government would reject threats emanating from Ankara about Texas-based energy firm Noble’s plans to start assessing oil and gas deposits inside Cyprus’exclusive economic zone. Since then, Turkey’s Prime Minister Reccep Tayyib Erdogan, and his Justice and Development Party have not hidden their displeasure. Turkish naval ships kept a close eye as Noble moved its rig to Cyprus’s exploration field block 12, which before had received permission by the Israeli authorities to drill in its Noa natural gas field. It is estimated that 280 billion cubic metres of gas lies under the seabed and Cyprus could earn up to €10 billion annually. Not to be outdone, Turkey has now sent its own ship to explore waters near northern Cyprus.
EU officials have not been hesitant to send cautionary messages to Ankara, regarding the sabre rattling in the eastern Mediterranean. Wilfried Martens who heads the European People’s Party, the largest party in the European Parliament, reacted on September 7, saying, “I am very surprised by the recent statements of Turkish officials against an EU member state. Turkey, an EU candidate country must refrain from threats against an EU member state that also undermine EU’s energy security.” A spokesperson for the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said the EU “calls on all parties to make all efforts to reach a comprehensive settlement as soon as possible.” Turkey’s EU Minister and chief negotiator for accession talks, Egemen Bağış, in an interview for the Turkish newspaper Zaman said that Turkey would not hesitate in deploying warships in the Mediterranean if Cypriots enter Turkish waters during their exploration efforts. Bağış responded confidently “That is what we have a navy for.”
The issue of Cyprus is just one of many problems which has put Turkey at loggerheads with the EU. Turkey refuses to accept the island as one whole republic, whilst the EU does not recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). After Cyprus joined the Union in 2004, military cooperation between NATO and the EU has suffered, due to Turkish opposition to Cypriot participation in military exercises and in June 2007, Turkey withdrew its military support to European Security and Defence Policy.
Yet, despite these obstacles, negotiations for Turkish accession have continued, albeit at a sclerotic pace. The official verdict still exists that the EU and Turkey are still following the roadmap to accession. Twelve years ago, due to the efforts of former PM Bülent Ecevit, it became a candidate country. In October 2005, formal accession talks opened on the thirty-five chapters, which make up the acquis communautaire, or the sum total of European legislation that prospective members must adopt. So far, only one chapter has been closed, which covers science and research. In December 2006, eight chapters of the acquis communautaire were frozen after Turkey’s refusal to normalize its relations with Cyprus. Yet Turkey still receives financial aid under the Instrument for Pre-accession. This year alone, it received €781.9 million and in 2012, it is expected to get €899.5 million. To keep the show on the road, the European Commission, which is the EU’s executive branch has called on the 27-member states to agree to the opening of a charter on energy in order to create a solid legal framework to allow for the transfer of natural gas to suppliers in the east to European markets.
Nevertheless, Turkish officials realise that with the EU in a debt crisis, coupled with slow economic growth and widespread unemployment, on the face of it, few reasons exist for Turkey to strive for EU membership. It is just not appealing as it was in previous years. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Turkey is predicted to be one of the three fastest economies until 2017. Today, Turkey is more content being the undisputed champion in the Arab world; something the EU has failed to fully grasp or appreciate. In 2010 alone, trade with Arab countries amounted to roughly to $24 billion. Europe is still Turkey’s largest trading partner, but according to Bloomberg, even before the start of the debt crisis, the share of exports to the EU was shrinking. Many EU states, France being the most vocal, under President Nicholas Sarkozy, does not believe that Turkey is European, whilst others would like to put accession talks to rest, preferring to negotiate for a “privileged partnership.” Opinions abound within the AK Party that the EU is a just a “Christian club” and Erdogan has accused the regional group of using “double standards”, and false promises. At the time of Cyrpus’ entry into the EU, a number of officials in Brussels voiced their support to help lift northern Cyprus out of its economic isolation, but thus far this has failed to bare fruit.
Existing tensions between EU and Turkey are likely to simmer as Cyprus is expected to take the rotating EU presidency in the latter part of 2012. On September 18, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay announced that Turkey will freeze relations with the EU if Greek Cyprus receives the presidency, which is an inbuilt guarantee, as every six months the presidency moves from one country to another. He cautioned the bloc saying, “Our relations with the EU will come to a sudden halt.” If this happens, then it would be a good opportunity for the EU to be open and honest about its intentions with Turkey. During Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s first visit to Germany in nine years, he cautioned Europe to refrain from debating whether or not Turkey should become a member, but rather let the negotiating process take its course and allow the country to make reforms. In a bizarre turn of events, the German Marshall Fund Transatlantic Trends 2011 survey revealed that there was a ten percent jump in the number of Turkish respondents who said EU membership is a good thing. This is the highest level of support since 2006. However the survey fails to come up with concrete reasons for this change of heart. Hürriyet Daily News journalist Barçin Yinanç at a recent hearing at the European Parliament in Brussels says that although accession talks are witnessing a “dormant period”, it is essential that the EU process is kept alive. Next year will be an important acid test.
For the Gulf Cooperation Council, problems between Turkey and Cyprus will have a medium term impact on the viability of oil and gas exports from a troubled region. This would have a positive effect for Gulf-based suppliers. The GCC enjoys good relations with both Turkey and Cyprus. In April this year, Cypriot foreign minister, Markos Kyprianou attended the EU-GCC Joint Council and Ministerial Meeting, in which he expressed his commitment to strengthening EU-GCC relations through a Joint Action Plan. In addition, as one of the GCC’s strategic partners, Turkey’s relations with GCC members look set to go from strength to strength. This year, Turkey attracted 54 percent more visitors from the Gulf than the previous year. Despite a failure to reach a deal on a free trade agreement, business between the GCC and Turkey has been expanding rapidly, and for the moment, there are few indicators to suspect that bilateral relations will suffer as a result of problems in the eastern Mediterranean.
Emily Boutler, Non-Resident Analyst