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February 19, 2013, Tuesday

A new spring in Turkey-EU membership talks?

After months of speculation over whether or not France would “release” one of the chapters that were blocked under the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, the announcement last week by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius that Chapter 22, titled “Regional Policy and Coordination of Structural Instruments,” would be opened represented positive progress and has been cited by some as a “breakthrough” in Turkey's beleaguered EU accession talks. With no chapter having been opened for almost three years, ties were becoming increasingly fragile.

Hopefully this development may go some way to reducing the frustration currently cloaking Turkey's political elites, and help stop the almost non-stop flow of EU bashing. For a leadership that regularly claims it is no longer interested in the EU, its politicians certainly spend an awful lot of time talking about it. Indeed, over the last few months there has been a significant increase in negative discourse. This has ranged from branding the EU a failed club to a recent statement from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about the possibility of Turkey joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) instead.

Ankara does have some reason to feel frustrated. The EU's approach towards Turkey has been markedly different than towards other candidates. Previous candidates were not offered “alternatives” nor were chapters blocked for unrelated political reasons. Furthermore, as Turkey has increased its economic and political clout it has become increasingly self-confident and haughty. A good example being that Turkey has been the only candidate country to issue its own “progress report.” According to Turkish EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış, this was done because “there were irregularities” in the one prepared by the European Commission. While Turkey is clearly frustrated, such statements and actions are wholly unnecessary. The European Commission has always been particularly supportive of Turkey and those who are involved in preparing the progress reports do so in a meticulous manner, in close cooperation with reliable and highly respected experts. Such irregularities, as cited by Minister Bağış, are highly unlikely.

Earlier this week Hélène Flautre, co-chairwoman of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, declared that 2013 looked like it was set to be a very positive year for Turkey's EU membership talks and that the unblocking of Chapter 22 was just the first step in France's new Turkey policy. With President François Hollande due to visit Turkey in March, it would seem this could represent a watershed moment and possibly result in the unblocking of further chapters. However, I am inclined to take a cautious approach and do not believe we should get too carried away and optimistic. Is this really the first step in clearing the road or is it more to do with the French president demonstrating that France attaches importance to its relationship with Ankara, rather the France giving strong support to Turkey's EU aspirations? Clearly Hollande wants to set himself apart from Sarkozy, yet public opinion in France still remains strongly opposed to Turkish membership.

Actually, there was never any need for France to take such a tough approach in the first place. With or without the blocked chapters the road to the EU remains very long and difficult. The only thing that was achieved was that the credibility of the EU was damaged while Ankara, to a certain degree, was able to use this as an excuse to slow down its reform process and rather cherry pick.

We will have to wait and see to what degree this “reset” is really going to happen. First, Chapter 22 may not be opened until June as Turkey still needs to meet one of the opening benchmarks. Furthermore, apart from France we need to evaluate the policies of the new Cypriot president, developments regarding visa liberalization and, of course, steps taken by Ankara, too. Turkey also needs to meet its commitments, including related to Cyprus as well as urgently re-engage in and consolidate EU-demanded reforms. This includes properly implementing reforms that often remain on paper alone as well as taking steps to getting civil liberties and freedoms, including freedom of expression, back on track.

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