By Menekse Tokyay
Developments in Turkey and the EU could present fresh opportunities for Ankara’s accession bid in 2013, provided that each side is ready to address long-term challenges together.
The ruling AKP introduced a series of democratising reforms early in its tenure, leading the EU to officially open negotiations with Turkey in 2005. But the process stumbled to a halt in the following years, with only one negotiating chapter closed of 13 opened.
Of the remaining 20 chapters, 17 have been blocked by EU countries, with no new ones opened since 2010. Meanwhile, Turkey has boycotted the EU during the Republic of Cyprus’s six-month presidency of the body that began in July 2012.
Most analysts agree that both sides bear responsibility for the deadlock. Some leaders of EU member states have prejudiced the outcome of negotiations by voicing opposition to Turkish membership, offering an ill-defined “privileged partnership” in its place.
For its part, Turkey has failed to open its ports to EU member Cyprus. Its human rights record has also drawn criticism, with the Committee to Protect Journalists asserting that Ankara imprisons more journalists than any other government in the world.
But in recent remarks to the press, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc expressed regret over the issue of imprisoned journalists, hinting that Turkey might facilitate their release by making changes to its anti-terrorism law.
In addition, Turkish officials are hopeful that Ireland’s ascension to the rotating EU presidency in January will allow the parties to build on past successes, particularly the “positive agenda” announced by the European Commission in 2011, which was designed as a transitional working method to give impetus to accession talks.
“As an outcome of our cumulative efforts, we started to reap the fruits of the positive agenda,” Minister for EU Affairs and chief negotiator Egemen Bagis told SETimes. “We have been using all our [energy] and creativity. The positive agenda is one of the outcomes of our efforts to move this process on.”
The positive agenda focuses on three issues of common concern: easing visa requirements, co-operation in counter-terrorism efforts and resolution of the problems related with the Customs Union. Since 2011, Turkey has adopted 320 laws and 1,555 secondary regulations to harmonise its national legislation with the EU acquis, according to Bagis.
The new French government elected earlier this year has been more conciliatory toward Turkey’s membership bid than its predecessor, giving Ankara hope for a warming in bilateral ties. The government of Nicholas Sarkozy was hesitant to include references to Turkish accession in certain EU documents, but the closing statement from this month’s enlargement meeting contained encouraging words on Turkey’s bid.
“Turkey is a candidate country and a key partner for the European Union considering its dynamic economy and strategic location,” the statement read. “It is in the interest of both parties that accession negotiations regain momentum soon.”
Turkey viewed the statement as a sign that progress in talks could be imminent.
“It is expected that France may re-consider its position with regard to the negotiation chapters that it had blocked in 2007,” Bagis said. “A decision of principle taken by France can pave the way for the opening of new chapters and it would be a strong and clear signal that the accession negotiation is moving forward.”
Ahmet Sozen, professor at Eastern Mediterranean University in north Cyprus, told SETimes that a positive step by France could help Turkey recapture some of its enthusiasm for reforms.
“France, with the new president, can take the lead and lift its veto on the suspended chapters. This will motivate Turkey to speed up reforms at home including a new constitution,” he said.
Meanwhile, strong trade relations continue to provide an incentive for closer EU-Turkey ties, with the EU remaining Turkey’s number one import and export partner, while Turkey ranks in the EU’s top ten in both categories.
But officials and analysts are quick to point out that recent political developments could prove fleeting. To make meaningful progress in accession talks, they say, the parties need to make decisions about their long-term relationship and get serious about addressing the major issues facing it.
“I would say that, beginning from 2013, it is time for a radical review of the state of EU-Turkey relations,” Andrew Duff, a British member of the European Parliament, told SETimes. “If Turkey is not to join the EU as a full member, would a form of associate membership be more acceptable? If so, what would this be based on — common market, trade and foreign policy or something more? These are the issues which should inform the new EU-Turkey dialogue.”
The unresolved status of Cyprus continues to be the most severe roadblock before Turkey’s EU membership, most analysts agree. Turkey’s membership can only go so far as it maintains an effective diplomatic and economic blockade against the island.
Ankara is weary of making concessions absent an overall political settlement between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
Sozen proposed that Turkey and the EU take a set of co-ordinated, mutually reinforcing steps on the issue in order to build confidence and momentum.
Ankara, Sozen said, should open its ports to Republic of Cyprus’s planes and ships while withdrawing a symbolic number of troops from the island. In exchange, the EU should open the blocked negotiating chapters while easing Northern Cyprus’s isolation through introducing more direct flights to the area.
“Such steps will greatly foster a speedy comprehensive solution in Cyprus and normalise Turkey’s EU accession in 2013 and will automatically trigger more democratic reforms in the country,” he told SETimes. “If this is left unattended, Cyprus issue will remain unsolved; it will continue blocking Turkey’s EU accession as well as increase tension regarding the hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
Duff agreed that progress on Cyprus and renewed political reform was essential to get Turkey’s membership bid back on track.
“In the absence of a settlement of Cyprus and radical overhaul of the Turkish constitution, there will be no change to the political opposition to Turkish membership in most of the EU member states,” he said.
The Turkish government maintains that the new constitution being drafted by a parliamentary committee will comply with EU standards. But in remarks posted on the ruling party’s website last week, Bagis accused EU member states of having “double standards” on Cyprus.
“Eight of our chapters regarding North Cyprus problems were vetoed. We’re faced with 26 spoiled countries that have vetoed six more of our chapters,” Bagis said. “Let the embargo on North Cyprus end. The Europeans should keep their own pledges, and we’ll open our ports to Cyprus.”
Kader Sevinc, the CHP’s representative to the EU, said the Turkish government needed to take more responsibility for its own shortcomings on democracy and human rights.
“Starting with the EU’s annual progress report on Turkey, all the international reports confirm the AKP government’s radical anti-democratic practices [in areas such as] media freedom, judicial independence, individual liberties,” she told SETimes. “Such policies have consequently made Turkey less qualified for EU accession.”
When asked by a journalist earlier this year about the role of human rights in Turkey’s membership bid, Bagis said “I am not claiming Turkey’s human rights record is perfect or that it is exemplary. But I am claiming, with a very strong level of self-confidence, that Turkey’s human rights record is better than some EU member states.”
But Sevinc was quick to add that the EU should not hide behind Turkey’s domestic issues to escape its own responsibilities.
“Turkish people also expect EU politicians to express their support to Turkey, addressing the Turkish people directly,” she said. “The confusion between supporting Turkish peoples’ European future and supporting a government’s political destiny should be avoided.”
Sevinc said that the stakes of the situation go far beyond the political tensions of the day, calling on both parties to focus on the future.
“Turkey’s EU accession process needs to be revitalised because Turkey’s democratic future is in Europe.”