Time for EU-Turkey 'Urgency'
Time for EU-Turkey 'Urgency'
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Time for EU-Turkey 'Urgency'

An abrupt and unusual word buried in a European Union declaration on Dec. 8 showed the mounting risks of a breakdown in Turkey's EU membership talks. Ankara's need to solve its problems with Cyprus, foreign ministers warned, has become "urgent." Thanks also to Turkey's failure to meet EU reform benchmarks since the negotiations started in 2005, a showdown looks inevitable over the next year.

Failure to reform and deep political polarization have led to a sense of lost direction in Turkey. Nationalism and human-rights violations are on the rise again. As the adoption of EU norms look more distant, ethnic tensions between Turks and Kurds have occasionally spilled over into neighborhood violence and attacks on shops even in major western cities. The great progress made in a golden era of reform from 2000 to 2004 is at risk.

The EU accession process was the principal anchor of Turkey's economic miracle this decade. This new prestige has led some policy makers in Ankara to declare that the country could be a self-standing regional hub that doesn't need the EU. But such thinking stood on shaky ground even before the global financial crisis exposed Turkey's vulnerability. The Balkan countries to Turkey's west are mostly in the EU already or moving toward that goal, and even countries such as Ukraine and Georgia are more interested in EU accession than in any special partnership with Turkey.

For Europe, the costs of losing Turkey are substantial as well. No doubt, European access to one of the biggest and fastest-growing nearby markets would become more difficult if the membership talks broke down. France's opposition to Turkey's EU membership in the last two years has cost it a great deal of business: French MP Pierre Lellouche earlier this year estimated the value of contracts lost at €5 billion. French diplomats say they've had to close their military sales office in their Ankara embassy due to the lack of Turkish interest, and the Turks also blocked Gaz de France from joining the Nabucco natural-gas pipeline project.

In fact, the souring EU relationship has been an impediment to progress on Nabucco altogether. Designed to bring Caspian or Middle Eastern reserves across Turkey and eventually to a hub in Austria, Nabucco is the EU's first formal effort to strengthen energy security by diversifying away from Russian gas supplies. What's more, an EU that proves unable to work on an equal basis with Turkey will deepen a belief in the Islamic world that the West rejects Muslims.

There are many reasons for this damaging EU-Turkey divergence. EU populations and politicians are cooler to enlargement than ever before. Sound arguments about Turkey's long-term contribution to the EU are losing ground to nostalgia for an idealized vision of a homogenous European past, along with fears about radical Islam and the potential loss of jobs to Turkish immigrants.

In Turkey, disillusionment began with the EU's 2004 admission of Cyprus as a divided state. The EU move rewarded the all-Greek Cypriot government, even though in 2004 it was the Turkish Cypriots who accepted, and the Greek Cypriots who rejected, the EU-backed United Nations peace plan. The EU then reneged on its promise to open direct trade with Turkish Cypriots.

French and German opposition to Ankara's right to join the EU further demotivated Turkish leaders, who slowed the adoption of EU law to a crawl. Additionally, half of the 33 negotiating chapters are now frozen for political reasons by the Greek Cypriots, who want Turkey to change positions in the Cyprus dispute, and Paris, which says it wants to block talks with Turkey on any issue applicable to full EU membership. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan angrily dressed down EU diplomats at an Ankara dinner in September, telling them: "Forget about drawing water from this well. [The EU has] got the bucket so stuck in the bottom of the well, it'll be a miracle to get it out at all."

In such an atmosphere, Turkey-skeptic EU states, perhaps in tandem with Turkish politicians angry with Europe, may try to suspend the negotiations altogether. One pretext could be Turkey's promise, made in order to win the opening of negotiations in 2005, to normalize relations with Cyprus and to open its seaports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic. When Turkey had failed to do so by December 2006, the EU said it would study the issue "in particular in 2007, 2008 and 2009." Brussels' new warning that the issue is "urgent" implies that this ambivalent wording is now seen as a deadline. Absent any good news on EU-minded reforms by Turkey, diplomats even in pro-Turkey EU capitals warn that a suspension of negotiations is possible.

Paradoxically, this cooling of relations comes just as Turkey is showing how much it can do to complement EU goals. Ankara has played key roles in representing the EU point of view over Iran's nuclear policy and nudging Lebanese factions toward compromise on a new president -- actions which Brussels acknowledged in its 2008 Turkey progress report. This year it has mediated talks between Syria and Israel, and opened up dialogue with both the Iraqi Kurds and even an old enemy, Armenia. In recognition of Turkey's responsible foreign policy, the country was elected to a two-year seat on the U.N. Security Council.

EU politicians must do their share to avoid a crisis. They should recognize their past mistakes on Cyprus, engage even-handedly in support of the promising new Cypriot talks in progress since September, and publicly commit funds to a future Cyprus settlement. The dangers of failure were highlighted last month when the Turkish and Greek navies and Greek Cypriot-chartered oil-prospecting ships sparred over territorial rights in the Mediterranean.

Since 1963 the EU has repeatedly promised Turkey full membership once it meets all criteria. Now would be a good time to reaffirm this promise. Also, the EU would win by following the call of Sweden and other pro-Turkey EU states to deepen strategic dialogue with Ankara.

Unfortunately for Ankara, EU politicians care more about the anti-enlargement mood at home than about Turkey's geostrategic role. Turkey's government and opposition will have to overcome their mutual hostility, implement the long-delayed reform program, and relaunch work on a new, more democratic constitution. Only a full adoption of European norms can prove that Turkey truly wishes to be part of the EU family.

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