Last week European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Füle visited Turkey. At a joint press conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Davutoğlu seemed to present the EU with some sort of ultimatum.
He indicated that EU-Turkey relations would “freeze” if the EU did not sort out the Greek Cypriots, enabling a solution to the decades-old Cyprus problem before Greek Cyprus takes over the EU’s rotating presidency in July 2012. He said Cyprus’ EU presidency, without a settlement, would hamper relations between Turkey and the 27-nation bloc because it would be out of the question to have the Greek Cypriots as an interlocutor.
A short time afterwards, this remark was slightly softened by Turkish Minister for European Affairs Egemen Bağış, who said Turkey might freeze relations with the Greek Cypriot presidency but it would maintain relations with the European Commission.
Of course this would not be the first time a freeze took place in Turkey’s relations with EU. The last time it happened was in 1997 and that was related to Cyprus too. It was following the EU summit in Luxembourg when the then 15-member EU decided to grant candidate country status to 12 others, including the divided Cyprus, but excluded Turkey saying that Ankara was not yet ready to receive candidate status. Turkey decided to cut off political dialogue with the EU with Prime Minister Mesut Yılmaz labeling the EU as unjust and erroneous. However, two years later at the October Helsinki summit a breakthrough took place when the European Commission recommended that Turkey be granted candidate country status. Following this Turkey went on to carry out a number of significant reforms in order to meet the Copenhagen Criteria, crucial for being able to open accession talks, as well as revolutionizing it’s policy on Cyprus, encouraging Turkish Cypriots to vote “yes” in a UN referendum for reunification in 2004. Despite the Turkish Cypriot approval and Greek Cypriot rejection of the EU-backed UN plan in 2004, Brussels accepted the Greek Cypriot government while Turkish Cypriots were excluded.
Since then, the Cyprus problem has been a constant irritant on the EU’s agenda, both in its accession talks with Turkey but more broadly including in relations with NATO. Therefore, there is probably nothing most EU member states would like better than to get rid of the Cyprus issue. Although, it is also true that for those that oppose Turkey’s eventual accession, its continuing presence is a handy excuse.
Davutoğlu’s threat has been interpreted by many people as Turkey and the EU entering an end game which will either result in a “reset” in relations or the end of the road for membership negotiations and a permanent damaging of relations more generally. In the first place, for me anyway, relations are already pretty much frozen. Given the fact that Turkey has not opened a negotiating chapter for more than one year, one can hardly say they are in full swing now. Furthermore, as Füle said, Turkey also has obligations to meet vis-à-vis Cyprus which should not be forgotten -- opening Turkish ports and airspace to Greek Cypriot vessels.
Moreover, it seems to me as if Turkey is attempting to lay the responsibility for the lack of a solution totally at the door of the Greek Cypriots, making it seem as if everything is dependent on the Greek Cypriots and their readiness to make concessions and compromises in order the reach a deal. It takes two oars to row a boat and it would be unfair to say that the lack of progress in negotiations has been down to Dimitris Christofias alone: Derviş Eroğlu hardly has a history of supporting a bi-communal, bi-federal solution. It looks as if Turkey is trying to up the ante. Ankara gives the impression that if no solution is found this time, or if the talks collapse, then -- because Turkey is such an important partner -- it would be time for the rest of the world to accept two states on Cyprus because of Greek Cypriot intransigence.
This round of talks will have been going on for three years in September, and in total inter-communal talks have been taking place for over 35 years which means every topic that could be discussed has been -- many, many times, leaving no stone unturned. Of course the optimal outlook is that the two sides -- and Turkey -- will dig deep and find enough political will for a settlement, then there will be a deal in the first quarter of 2012 and the Cyprus problem can become history with the creation of a new partnership state on the island.
Talk of failure by July 2012 representing the end of the road for Turkey-EU relations seems exaggerated. The EU and Turkey now cooperate in so many different areas, it would be impossible simply to pull the plug. Times have moved on since 1997 and somehow I doubt the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is ready to halt negotiations -- frozen or not -- with the EU for the sake of a six-month Greek Cypriot presidency. Of course there will be some, hoping they do just that.