AMANDA PAUL

Turkey-EU relations: heading into the sand

As Turkey-European Union relations stagger on, many in the EU’s institutions are »»
As Turkey-European Union relations stagger on, many in the EU’s institutions are increasingly frustrated by a process that is becoming ever more politicized, lacking direction and bogged down with problems. Of course, there are small success stories, but overall there is a general sense that the process is heading toward breakdown, and sooner rather than later.

EU-related reforms have become increasingly patchy and thin on the ground. Indeed the EU had been pushing Turkey for years to reform the Constitution; therefore, the recent reforms came as a welcome surprise. The European Commission had engaged a legal expert to go through every nook and cranny of the Constitution and come up with a list of reforms that needed to be carried out to bring the document in line with EU norms. The commission is quite satisfied with the result so far, and overall most of the suggested reforms, including crucial reforms to the judiciary, have been tackled, although not 100 percent. However, what concerns the EU is that overall constitutional reform has been a political project of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) alone. The AKP carried out no consultations with civil society, and a number of changes proposed and pushed by opposition parties were totally ignored without any discussion or reasoning. The AKP has made virtually no effort to find a consensus because with their majority in Parliament they felt no need to reach out to the other political actors. In the words of one commission official, “[Recep Tayyip] Erdogan steamrollered the whole process as per usual.” Not surprisingly, many in Brussels have also welcomed the departure of Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Deniz Baykal in the hope that his successor may be able to restructure the party into a credible opposition -- something that Turkey badly misses.

Even with this constitutional reform, it won’t change much in the negotiation process, which is sinking deeper into the sand. While the Spanish presidency promised, very optimistically, to open four negotiating chapters by the end of June, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to even open one, let alone four. This was a very unrealistic scenario. Furthermore, it is not the presidency that decides on whether or not Turkey is ready to open a chapter; it is the European Commission. Of the four chapters that the Spanish referred to, two remain blocked by the Republic of Cyprus -- energy and education and culture. Ever since the Turkish navy entered the Republic of Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone to prevent the Greek Cypriots from exploring for oil/gas, the Greek Cypriots have refused to even consider removing their veto on this chapter until Turkey gives its word -- in writing -- that they won’t do it again.

Clearly Turkey has no intention of doing this. However, the vetoing of this chapter is very unfortunate given the crucial role that Turkey is destined to play in EU energy diversification plans, including being the preferred transit state for the much-talked-about Nabucco gas pipeline. On the other two, public procurement and food safety, Turkey has not put in enough work and is therefore unable to meet the opening benchmarks. Erdogan’s current obsession with domestic politics and the 2011 parliamentary elections means that the EU is a very secondary concern.

The other hot issue is the resuscitated direct trade regulation, which was first proposed six years ago as part of a package to help ease the isolation of the Turkish Cypriots and has been blocked ever since. Although nobody in the European Commission really believes that the direct trade regulation will pass and rather it will return to a dusty shelf in the Directorate-General for Enlargement, where it will remain for decades, the Greek Cypriots are not leaving anything to chance and have been behaving in a very psychotic way, working 24 hours a day lobbying in the European Parliament to prevent the regulation going to the Committee on International Trade. Indeed the Greek Cypriots are such drama queens that they are saying the direct trade regulation is the biggest catastrophe to hit the island since the events of 1974. It is very likely they will succeed because while there is sympathy for the Turkish Cypriots, it is unlikely, when push comes to shove, that the other 26 member states will go against the sovereign concerns of Cyprus.

The outcome will have an impact on Turkey’s negotiations because once the handful of remaining chapters that are not blocked are opened, there will be nothing left and Turkey and the EU will find themselves running into the sand. Officially the negotiations won’t stop but will hang in a state of “limbo” until something changes. This could be weeks, months or years. Rather, Turkey-EU relations will move into another arena and focus on bigger and more specific issues. And the point is -- does anybody really care? Of course, there will be a few people in Ankara and the EU who will be disappointed, but at the same time, many people won’t be that bothered and, in some cases, will be gloriously pleased.

2010-05-23

Columnists

Columnist:: AMANDA PAUL