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March 11, 2012, Sunday

Turkey’s EU woes

The EU has never been ready for Turkey and never will be. Turkey’s stalled EU membership process is becoming untenable and unless there is a change in the political climate there is every chance that Turkey will say “basta” and quit the talks, which will have a serious impact on broader Turkey-EU cooperation. This was the message given by a senior Turkish official at a dinner last week.

Turkey believes it has been a more than constructive partner for the EU, yet this constructive behavior, including vis-à-vis cooperation on the Middle East region, is simply taken for granted and has had no tangible impact on Turkey’s membership talks. With the Republic of Cyprus due to pick up the EU’s rotating presidency in July, Turkey has refused to attend meetings hosted by the Greek Cypriots, adding more fuel to the fire that is ablaze between the two sides in an increasingly unsatisfactory relationship.

It is now almost two years since a negotiation chapter was opened. While Turkey recently announced a package of judicial reforms, the overall reform process has become very patchy and the EU has concerns over several key areas, including the process of constitutional reform and freedom of expression. Even if French President Nicholas Sarkozy is not re-elected in the forthcoming presidential elections, the Cyprus problem will continue to be a serious obstacle.

While the EU launched a New Positive Agenda with Turkey in the last part of 2011, it has yet to deliver concrete results. The initiative is not meant to be a substitute for accession negotiations. Rather, it is meant to compliment them. The partners are working together to deliver tangible results over the course of 2012 in a number of key areas, including visas and the Customs Union. Turkey has concerns over free trade agreements the EU is signing up to with countries like Japan, which, under the present terms of the Customs Union, Turkey is obliged to go along with even though this is far from favorable for Ankara. There is also hope that progress will be made towards a visa-free regime and it seems that negotiations to this end are moving along. However, last week it was reported that some 500 illegal immigrants are still passing from Turkey into Greece each week via the very porous border. While this is a significant drop from the previous figure of 2,000, it is still of concern. A number of member states have called for an action plan to stem this tide and better management by Turkey of its borders. This may have a negative impact on the visa-free issue.

Recent remarks over Cyprus by Turkey’s EU minister, Egemen Bağış, ruffled a lot of feathers. During an interview, Bağış suggested that if the current round of UN led peace talks aimed at reunifying Cyprus fail, as they seem likely to do, Turkey could annex the north. While he reiterated that Turkey wanted a united Cyprus and was supporting the current round of talks, he said other options must remain on the table in case of failure. When questioning officials in the Turkish Foreign Ministry, I was told that Minister Bağış has an “interesting sense of humor.” Another Turkish friend told me that Bağış is simply frustrated and letting off steam, believing such harsh statements could improve his popularity at home. The feeling in Turkey is that the Greek Cypriots have no incentive to resolve the Cyprus problem; that the EU gave them a free ride by allowing them to join the EU without solving their political problems -- something which was not the case with other candidates such as Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Bağış later claimed he had been misinterpreted. Still it angered both Turkish and Greek Cypriots, who viewed it as cynical, arrogant and provocative. While the main opposition in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) bitterly complained, the ruling party made no comment. However, as Ankara provides financial support of around 1 billion euros per year to the Turkish Cypriots, I guess the KKTC would not want to antagonize it.

In theory, because Turkey is a guarantor state in Cyprus, along with Greece and the UK, according to the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee, Turkey is prohibited from any annexation scenario and this would be a violation of treaty obligations under international law. Furthermore, according to a public opinion poll conducted by the Cyprus 2015 Initiative, 52 percent of Turkish Cypriots see the “annexation with Turkey as unacceptable, with 23 percent finding this option as ‘satisfactory’.”

It is also not the first time Turkey has made such a threat. Turkey did the exact same thing between 1997 and 1999 when Turkey’s relations with the EU were in troubled waters following the Luxembourg Summit, where the EU refused to give Turkey candidate country status but at the same time agreed that Cyprus could join the EU, without demanding a solution to the decades-old problem. In any event, given the heavy influence of Turkey in northern Cyprus, both economically and politically, it has already, for all intents and purpose, annexed it.

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