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February 21, 2007, Wednesday

Babacan and the confusion over the EU

I had the chance first to interview Turkey's ambassador to the EU, Volkan Bozkır, and then the boss of negotiations Ali Babacan when he visited Brussels last week, when he set a record of meeting seven commissioners in a row in less than two days.
I got two impressions from these interviews. Firstly, Ankara is hugely disappointed from the Dec. 11 decisions that took the decision to suspend eight chapters out of 35. Turkey refused to comply with the Ankara protocol to open its ports to Greek Cypriot vessels, as the EU has refused to keep its promise to end the isolation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. So Turks think there are two culprits in this problem but that only the Turkish side has been obliged to pay the price. The mood resembles the aftermath of historic summit of Dec. 16-17 2004, when the EU, after almost 50 years, eventually decided to start accession talks with Turkey but with the condition of opening its ports to Greek Cypriots vessels.  The joy was a bitter one on the Turkish side. Almost exactly two years after the tantalizing December 2004 decisions, Turkey suffered another setback with the suspension decision, which is a first in the history of EU enlargement.

The second impression I got in particular from my talk with Babacan is the confusion of the Turkish side on how to proceed with EU negotiations as two very significant elections are looming on the horizon. The disappointment of the Dec. 11 decisions had led to the Jan. 10 decisions by Turkey. Turkish authorities now argue that they will open and close the remaining 32 chapters in Ankara without waiting the approval of EU. It is far from certain if Turkey's political will is strong enough to go all the way without proper EU support even when government seems hopeless in dealing with notorious Article 301. Babacan further argued in the press meeting in Brussels that the EU was not in a position to dictate terms to Turkey, particularly in the wake of the Dec. 11 decision. Foreign Minister Gül, echoing Babacan, declared that the EU and US should stay away from debates over 301, implying that they were seen as "colonial governors." One can possibly understand the reaction to US, given the Turkish perceptions of America's invasion of Iraq, but the warning directed at the EU is totally preposterous. If the candidate status of Turkey has not changed by a mutual consent of Brussels and Ankara, then EU will always intervene in issues like judiciary. You cannot simply tell them: "get lost." Or else you have to change the mechanisms of relationship with the EU and accept another midway formula, i.e. privileged partnership, which Ankara has vehemently rejected as hypocritical.

When you talk to Turkish bureaucrats and diplomats, you get the perception that Dec. 11 has been "September 11" of Turkey-EU relations. However, Babacan after angrily rejecting the idea that EU can dictate dates, he stressed that the EU is the main motor of success since 2002: "Cut relations with EU and you do not need to wait a year for another calamity, it will come within several months."

Confusion comes from the looming elections. Understandably the government does not want to be viewed as simply a doer of EU orders. I fully agree with the government that the Dec. 11 decisions were unjust and very tough. But one has to admit that it is a tightrope to walk on, if we damage the core of Turkey-EU relations then Dec.11 could certainly turn into the "September 11" of the EU accession process.