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EU wants Turkey with it but not within it June 27, 2011

Posted by Yilan in EU, European Union, Turkey.
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At the end of last week I organized a seminar on the outcome of the Turkish elections. I was very happy that my fellow columnist from Today’s Zaman, Şahin Alpay, joined our panel together with the brilliant Semih Idiz from Milliyet and Andrew Duff from the European Parliament. These three men have a wealth of experience between them, having, in the case of Alpay and Idiz, been swimming in the Ankara fish tank for decades, and in the case of Duff, having had a prestigious academic career before becoming an MEP.

One thing all the speakers agreed on was that the election results would have no positive impact on Turkey’s EU membership negotiations. The EU hardly figured in the election campaign with Turkey becoming increasingly self-confident and Turks believing membership is no longer the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that they once thought it was. Rather, what is driving Turkey these days is its own sociological dynamics of democratization and liberation.

Duff was extremely blunt, saying that Turkey’s negotiations with the EU had come to a standstill now that there are only a few negotiating chapters left to open. And even to get these opened is proving something of a mountain to climb. In late 2010, the EU Commission opted not to open the competition chapter amid opposition from several EU states. This blocking came as a particularly strong blow because Ankara had delivered all that was required of it. While the incoming Polish presidency, which is enlargement and Turkey friendly, has said it wants to give Ankara’s membership talks a push, unless there is some change related to the Cyprus problem it will find its hands tied. There has been much talk of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan making steps on Cyprus, in particular by fully meeting Turkey’s obligations under its customs union with the EU and opening ports and airports to Republic of Cyprus traffic, now that he has such a strong mandate. However this is very unlikely, particularly given he has not taken any steps to prepare Turkish public opinion to what Turks would classify as a huge “concession.” Perhaps if the EU were able to demonstrate it is ready to “reset” talks with Ankara and get a two or three chapters opened, it may offer him some incentive. However, while the current climate exists I doubt he will lift a finger.

Because the EU continues to create unnecessary obstacles or is unable to give Turkey a clear membership perspective, the leverage that it now has on Turkey is almost zero, including in the reform process. This lack of commitment from the EU simply allows Turkey to cherry pick at the reforms it wants to do. As was said by Turkey’s ambassador to the EU earlier this week, “In the absence of any clear accession perspective, there’s no reason why Turkey should align its legislation toward narrow EU standards.” Of course Turkey will continue to read the recommendations delivered in the European Commission’s annual Progress Report, but that does not mean Ankara is going to follow them word for word, which was the case when the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) first came to power in 2002.

In fact, while Turkey is a candidate country, the approach the EU takes is similar to the one it has with the countries of Eastern Europe — those countries that are part of its European Neighbourhood Policy, or Eastern Partnership Policy. However, even these countries — such as Moldova and Ukraine, while they may have no membership perspective, they are at least negotiating visa-free regimes with the EU, something that is continually refused to Turkey. And it is not just these countries, as even Russia is engaged with the EU in talks for visa-free travel for its citizens, while Turkey, a key ally and partner of the EU, is denied. This is particularly humiliating for Turks, who have been negotiating membership for five years but yet still have to queue up for hours for a visa, which is frequently refused.

The EU’s approach towards Turkey has no logic. On the one hand you have a blatant rejection of the very notion of Turkish membership, even though the EU has offered Turkey this very thing, while at the same time the EU is practically begging Turkey to save the situation in Syria. At an EU foreign ministers’ meeting last week it was clear that the EU was pinning all its hopes on Turkey helping to stop the violence in Syria, with foreign ministers stating they hoped Turkey would be able to play a big role in curbing the violence in Syria stating “the EU acknowledges the efforts by Turkey … on the different aspects of the crisis, in particular the humanitarian aspects and will work with them to address the situation in Syria.” While Greeks and Greek Cypriots tried to block the statement they were — for once — overruled. It’s a pity the EU could not take such a pragmatic approach to other aspects of its relations with Turkey.

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