The year 2013 offers a new wave of optimism in Turkey’s relations with the EU as Ireland is about to take over the rotating term presidency from the Greek Cypriot administration in January.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s remarks published on Thursday signal a new phase in the long journey of Turkey to the EU. “I believe there might be a new revival [in the negotiations process] with Ireland,” said Erdoğan, adding that they “had already declared a freeze in everything even before the Greek Cypriot term started.” After a lost year in 2012, there is also hope that the approach of major EU actors, particularly France, could change in a more constructive direction. Erdoğan added that “the new administration in France could have a different attitude on the issue” in comparison to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s unwelcoming stance towards Turkey.
Speaking to Sunday’s Zaman, Turkey’s EU Minister Egemen Bağış said he is hopeful for 2013 while putting the blame on the EU for “the unjust blockage of the negotiations process.” According to Bağış, “The reason why we have been experiencing problems with the EU is the populist policies of some European politicians who lack vision and are only concerned with today.” In an effort to emphasize the significance of what the EU represents for Turkey, however, Bağış added, “What is more important for us is the process rather than the result, and Turkey’s socio-economic transformation and democratization.”
Defining the EU-Turkey negotiation process as a win-win relationship, Bağış said, “The opening of chapters such as energy and economic and monetary policy as well as any positive step are in the interest of both sides.”
Commenting to Sunday’s Zaman, Deputy Foreign Minister Naci Koru reiterated Turkey’s commitment to EU membership and said, ‘‘Turkey’s expectation from the new French president, François Hollande, is to compensate for the harm France has done to our membership process under previous administrations.” In line with the optimism of the prime minister, Koru also stated, “There might be progress during Ireland’s EU presidency, especially with regards to the chapters that France has blocked.”
As Koru pointed out, EU countries are currently blocking 18 chapters, and five of those have been blocked only by the Greek Cypriots since 2009. According to him, “The chapters blocked by the Greek Cypriot administration, such as energy and foreign, security and defense policy, are not in the interest of anyone including the Greek Cypriots.”
Despite hopes, Koru admitted there are challenges to reviving the process when half of the chapters are blocked by EU countries, and he pointed out the failure of the EU to respond positively to Turkey’s efforts.
Bahadır Kaleağası, the international coordinator of the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSİAD), also cited the Cyprus issue as the biggest obstacle to further improvement in Turkey-EU relations. He said, “It is tragic that an issue like Cyprus causes a deadlock in relations with Europe, which is consumed with other challenges.” His short-term remedy for the elephant in the room though is to ignore it for the time being. Kaleağası believes that the best tactic for Turkey is to “set the Cyprus question aside for a while and focus on achieving further democratization,” referring to steps to be taken to institute the rule of law and the problems stated in the EU progress report such as concerns over the length of pretrial detention, the independence of the judiciary and minority rights.
While criticizing the EU for “reading Turkey through the Cyprus or Kurdish question only,” Dr. Mehmet Hasgüler from the Center for Strategic Communication (STRATIM) argued that the Greek Cypriots were not able to use their term at the helm of the EU as leverage in order to force concessions from Turkey on the Cyprus issue due to the grave financial crisis in Greece. Referring to the problem of “Eurocracy,” Hasgüler said, “This makes the EU myopic [towards Turkey].”
Stating that evaluating Turkey based on the Cyprus issue causes the negotiations to lose momentum, Hasgüler hopes that the process can be accelerated in practice during the rotating term presidency of Ireland, which has a “more neutral view of Turkey.” As supporting evidence of the positive atmosphere with the Irish, Bağış mentioned that he met with the ambassadors of the EU members at a meeting hosted by the Irish ambassador to Turkey on Nov. 29, and they had already started a dialogue with the Irish, in the summer of 2012.
Cautious optimisim in face of lingering problems
There now seems to be “cautious optimism” given the past mixed track record of relations with the EU. The secretary-general of the Economic Development Foundation (İKV), a civil society organization which has an office in Brussels that contributes to Turkey’s EU process, Çiğdem Nas, does not see “the short-term prospects for EU-Turkey relations as very promising.” Nas added: “The last chapter to be opened to negotiations has been that of food safety, veterinary and phytosanitary policy in June 2010. Since then, we have not seen any new chapters opened to negotiations. There are only three chapters that can possibly be opened to negotiations at the moment.”
However, like the others, she added, “It may be expected that France will lift its veto over some of the chapters that it had blocked under the Sarkozy presidency.” According to her, “EU leaders may realize that Turkey is the country that will invigorate the integration process and provide dynamism to Europe not only as a partner but as a full member. “ Similarly, Kaleağası believes, “Europe also needs Turkey because it needs Turkey’s sphere of influence for enlargement.”
Kaleağası, who resents the time lost for both sides in 2012, said, “Neither party benefitted from the loss of time.” Stating “The EU is a very important driving force for Turkey,” Kaleağası argued that the standstill in the process had a negative impact on reforms in Turkey. In a more confident remark in Turkey, however, Nas said, “Turkish leaders and public opinion realize that Turkey cannot do away with the EU and still needs the EU anchor for its democratization and modernization.”
Despite reviving optimism, a realistic awareness of the lingering problems remains. As Nas said, “This new phase could provide a new optimism in the relations,” while adding, “The basic problems still persist, such as the Cyprus issue, the reluctance of Germany for Turkey’s EU membership and the growing rift between the current Turkish government and the European ideals.”
The recent debate over capital punishment comes to mind when speaking of such a rift. In November, Erdoğan said Turkey might discuss bringing back the death penalty in cases of acts of terror and murder. In an immediate reaction, European Parliament President Martin Schulz said a move toward the death penalty would be a step back in every sense, including in relations between Turkey and the EU. Bağış denies such a rift and considers the issue as part of an atmosphere of open and free debate.
One point that is also worth attention seems to be the active back channels in Turkish-EU relations. Bağış, Deputy Foreign Minister Koru and Kaleağası commonly refer to the multidimensional nature of relations with the EU and the ongoing activities among bureaucrats, diplomats, business communities and civil society. However, the EU’s financial crisis should also be taken into consideration while projecting the foreseeable future of relations. As Nas reminds us: “The EU multiannual budgetary framework for 2012-20 will be settled in 2013. The very difficult negotiations over the budget so far have also shown us that the economic problems faced by the EU narrow their perspectives with regard to future enlargement.”
Despite persistent problems such as the Cyprus issue, the domestic problems of both Turkey and the EU and the relative decline in the desire for EU membership in Turkey, mainly triggered by the reluctance of some European countries to welcome Turkey to the union, 2013 offers fertile ground for moving forward in the EU process. After all, the EU goal continues to be a matter of enlightened self-interest for Turkey, and the EU needs a long-lost dynamism and outreach to the world through an addition like Turkey.