EU and Turkey Edge Back from the Brink
EU and Turkey Edge Back from the Brink
Turkey-Greece: A Shimmer of Hope in the Eastern Mediterranean
Turkey-Greece: A Shimmer of Hope in the Eastern Mediterranean
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

EU and Turkey Edge Back from the Brink

Turkey’s friends in Europe have won an important argument. The governments of France and Germany have stopped advocating a “privileged partnership” to replace the long-promised goal of EU membership for Turkey.The concept was always a short-term pandering to Europeans’ fears about Islam, immigration and jobs. Now aware of the long-term damage this has done to their own commercial interests, the EU’s stature on its southeastern flank and Turkey’s own reform program, both countries are trying to find ways to mend relations.

The result: on his return from an ice-breaking trip to France in October, Turkish President Abdullah Gül was happy to state that the French leadership did not mention “privileged partnership”. In fact, although President Sarkozy may not have changed his own mind, his politicisation of Turkey’s EU membership during his election victory in 2007 has unexpectedly mobilised Turkey’s supporters in France. Left-wing newspapers now debate the merits of the country, whereas a decade ago they mainly picked apart Turkey’s then poor human rights record.

French businesses, anxious about what politician Pierre Lellouche early on thought was the loss of five billion euros worth of business, helped finance an ongoing nine months of 400 Turkish cultural events in 70 French cities. These plays, debates and shows — including lighting up the Eiffel Tower in the red-and-white of the Turkish flag — have probably done more to showcase Turkey than decades of diplomatic toil.

The change is more subtle in Germany, where the idea of “privileged partnership” originated and was a key part of Christian Democrat leaders’ rhetoric during the last election in 2004. After the 2009 elections, the CDU-CSU-FDP coalition agreement (page 109) is still stiff with suspicion of Turkey, underlining that the negotiating process should be open-ended, include no date or automatic or guaranteed right of entry and specify strict obligations to meet EU criteria.

But it makes no mention of “privileged partnership”, saying that only if membership negotiations fail for any future reason, the policy should be to bind Turkey “as closely as possible to European structures to develop her privileged relationship with the EU”. Beyond the linguistic step back from confrontation, this official postponement of any decision is an important change that keeps Turkey’s road open and no longer betrays decades of EU promises of possible membership.

The efforts of key EU states like Germany and France to achieve a more respectful relationship with Turkey gives some hope that the bleak “down” cycle of EU-Turkey hostility between 2005-2008 is entering a new “up” cycle – just as the EU-Turkey near-death experiences of 1987 and 1997 were eventually overcome. With the Lisbon Treaty in place and fears of economic meltdown receding, the EU is regaining self-confidence.

For its part, Turkey slowly restarted its EU engines in 2009 – enacting its National Programme for the adoption of the EU acquis, appointing a chief EU negotiator, strengthening bureaucratic systems to support EU convergence, sending leaders more frequently to European capitals, signing the inter-governmental agreement for the potential Nabucco natural gas pipeline, starting negotiations to join Europe’s Energy Community Treaty and saying that it wants to reopen discussion on a readmission agreement for the tens of thousands of illegal refugees who reach the EU every year through Turkey. Partly thanks to the governments’ efforts to solve the long-running Kurdish and Armenian problems, this all secured a mildly positive EU progress report for the year.

Still, 2010 remains full of challenges, given that many of the initiatives that have improved the atmosphere with the EU are like juggling balls that remain up in the air — there is no clarity, for instance, about the fate of the government’s promise to normalise relations with Armenia, its ability to follow through on its Democratic Initiative to broaden Kurdish and other ethnic rights in Turkey, and what will happen on Cyprus. The appearance of three Turkish ministers in Brussels with an entourage of 80 people to open the Environment chapter of the negotiations in December was a signal, but smacked of showmanship as much as substance.

After all, the Environment chapter is only the 12th negotiating chapter to be opened in four years. The Cyprus issue now blocks most of the 23 others. If nobody finds a way to settle Cyprus this year, Turkey’s relationship with the EU will slowly enter an indefinite ice age. Over the years, expensive judgments are likely to pile up against Turkey for its occupation of Greek Cypriot properties in north Cyprus in the European Court of Human Rights. The ultimate bill could rise to many billions of Euros and, if left unpaid, would compromise not just the EU talks but cast a shadow over Turkey’s membership of the Council of Europe.

Both the EU and Turkey would therefore do well to keep finding ways to build support for EU convergence, however it is defined. The EU takes half of Turkey’s exports and supplies more than three-quarters of its foreign direct investment. Turkey’s recent flirtation with the Middle East is all very well, but trade with the Mideast has long been only a quarter of Turkey’s total.

Europeans worried about “absorption capacity” and “full implementation of all criteria” should also remember that whatever happens, any final decisions on Turkish EU membership are a decade or two away. EU members may by then be more appreciative of an allied Turkey’s bulk as their bloc measures up against China, India, Russia or the U.S.

As President Gül said in a speech to businessmen in Paris in October:

"We want to be together with a big, powerful, large-capacity partner, and this will bring both sides many benefits. To be honest, our insistence on the European Union is all about this… we’re just saying, give us the chance to upgrade ourselves. If we complete the negotiation process, at that point the French people, the Austrian people can go to a referendum; at that time, if you like or don’t like the Turkey of that day, you can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. And maybe at that time Turkey will say ‘no, I’m going to go on as I am… maybe I want to be like Norway".

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