Danish Presidency of the Council of the European Unionby Ali Yurttagül*

When I glance up at the headline of this piece, I find myself doing a double take, »»

When I glance up at the headline of this piece, I find myself doing a double take, just as those who follow the relations between the European Union and Turkey must be doing.

They must be thinking that the topic at hand ought to be the presidency of Southern Cyprus and not that of Denmark. And of course, there is some truth to this. When the topic of relations with Turkey hits the agenda in Brussels these days, it is the upcoming (July 1, 2012) EU presidency of Cyprus and the possible “boycott” of EU relations by Turkey that define the agenda. In addition, if we set aside for a moment the associations the word “Denmark” has in Turkish society with the important Copenhagen criteria, there are also issues -- such as the Roj TV case, the tension over the selection of the NATO General Secretary and the crisis surrounding the “Mohammed caricatures” -- that work to define how Denmark is perceived in Turkey. Just as one cannot really assert that relations between Turkey and Denmark are overly warm, one can also not really assert that Denmark has had a significant influence on Turkish policies in recent years. But pushing all of the above aside for a moment, the real reason the focus of this article is not Cyprus’ upcoming EU presidency but rather the current (as of Jan. 1, 2012) Danish EU presidency is that it dovetails with a historic period  in Turkish-EU relations, and is, in addition, an important opportunity. The historic aspect of Turkish-EU relations during this period is that in these days, as relations head toward their deepest crisis yet, the “shared stance” adopted by the EU will no doubt take shape with Denmark at the helm of the union. In fact, the rotating presidency could have gone to any of the many countries in the union (Malta, for example), but the truth is, the Danish presidency actually presents a sort of “chance” from a number of angles. And if Ankara takes advantage of the coming five months (the Danish presidency runs from Jan. 1 to June 30), it just might be able to grab the opportunity presented by the situation. After touching briefly on the whole phenomenon of rotating term presidencies in the EU and its importance from the perspective of the Cyprus question, let us take a closer look at the specific case of Denmark. With promises that a later piece will examine in detail the upcoming EU term presidency of Cyprus, let us today focus on the role of Denmark at the helm of the EU.

Ever since the founding of this international organization, the EU has had a rotating presidency that sees different members take over the leadership every six months. Until the Lisbon Treaty, term presidents not only decided what the political priorities on the agenda were but also represented the entire EU on the international stage. For example, the foreign minister of whichever country was the term president would work as the foreign minister of the EU and would be perceived by other countries in this way. And even though this “double-hat” phenomenon also held true for other government ministers, it was especially defining for the foreign ministers of whichever country had the term presidency. But when the Lisbon Treaty came along, the EU chose not only an actual president for itself but also a Commission member who was to be the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the first of whom was in the form of Catherine Ashton. Ashton thus represents not only the EU Commission but also the Council, in other words, the various member countries. This restructuring, in addition to making the EU an institution transparent from the perspective of citizens, was also aimed at providing “continuity” in its programs and projects. Since progress in the EU is generally as slow as Ottoman Janissary bands, this was a courageous step by the union. But at the same time, some politicians, like French President Nicolas Sarkozy, were afraid of certain candidates and thus tried to hinder those candidates, such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who would have made the Union more visible and stronger but who could also overshadow them. And thus Lady Ashton and Herman Achille van Rompuy were selected, as they represented no risk of overshadowing anyone. But since these two are not the type to wield the full authority given to them by the Treaty, the phenomenon of term presidency for the EU still carries its original efficacy. And the importance attached to the upcoming term presidency of Cyprus derives a bit from this, even though Cyprus’ expectations may not be entirely realistic at the same time.

The meaning of six months

In order to understand why it is that Cyprus’ hopes and expectations in relation to the upcoming term presidency are not very realistic, all one really has to do is consider that six months is not a very long time in a very slow-moving, decision-making institution composed of 27 member countries. The same period of time in relations between Turkey and Cyprus have produced little to no results or developments worth noting. If Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, as a part of his whirlwind diplomatic trips, were to visit EU capitals instead of meeting regularly with Ashton, there is no doubt meetings would take place not every six months but at longer intervals. Since accession talk chapters are now blocked and not moving forward, it is not really on any term president’s agenda to sit down at the negotiating table with Turkey. But when it comes to the Cyprus issue, this is not the problem anyway. The problem is that Cyprus is turning the whole EU term presidency into a sort of matter of “existence.” Cyprus diplomacy, which has been facilitating the playing of the role of a country “invaded by another nation” and “oppressed,” is doing all it can to catch hold of cooperation with the EU against Turkey. We do not think they will be successful on this front if Ankara does not make any serious errors on this matter, and as long as Turkey correctly perceives the Danish term presidency of the EU as an opportunity and uses it wisely. Let us talk about what it is that makes the Danish EU term presidency so important.

Denmark is a Scandinavian country that does not fall into the whole “EU is collapsing” category. It is one of the few strong countries that, during these times of deep financial crisis, is doing well, even able to put state bonds on the public market at -0.1 percent interest rates. And while there is much debate about whether Germany, which like Denmark stands financially strong, should be a model for other nations, the fact that no such debates swirl around Denmark, which is actually stronger, derives no doubt from its small size. Looking at both of these countries closely is enough to see that Denmark actually rests upon stronger bearings at this point than Germany does. Denmark not only has a higher per capita rate of income than Germany, but it also has a better grip on social issues than Germany. Its education levels are also higher, and it also has a growing, rather than shrinking, population. No doubt it is not a coincidence that birth rates in Scandinavian countries, where social rights and education are so fervently supported and women have less to lose in the clash between motherhood and career, are higher than in countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain, where the average number of children per woman has shrunk to 1.3. And so, while Germany can certainly be compared to Denmark on the economic front, it lags far behind in social issues.

Keeping all of the above in mind then, it is certainly no surprise to see Denmark move about within the EU framework with a lot of self-confidence. Despite this, though, as Denmark is outside the eurozone, it is also not surprising it is not playing an influential role in defining the agenda for the economic crisis. According to some, French leader Sarkozy actually warned the Danes not to try and wield influence in directing the economic crisis, underscoring the importance of trying to find solutions within the eurozone group and under the leadership of the so-called “Merkozy” duo. And so, while Denmark’s influence on the economic crisis, which is very much defining the EU agenda these days, is really non-existent, it will no doubt prefer to focus on different matters rather than spending its time fighting with Sarkozy. And this is where the opportunity arises, from the Turkish perspective. There are two choices that lie before Denmark in terms of clearing the path toward talks on the Cyprus matter, the most important topic in Turkey-EU relations. By supporting the attempt by the UN General Secretary to bring about an international conference, Denmark could really be effective in the search for a solution on Cyprus. And if this attempt, which no one really views with much hope, does not appear realistic, it could return to the process that was developed during Finland’s role as EU term president. As for Turkey, it must keep its own door open to such attempts.

In response to all questions concerning Danish policies on the Turkey front, Danish Foreign Minister Villy Sovndal asserts that his country’s policies will be no different than the ones they have on other countries. This stance, which shows that Denmark has no intention of implementing a “double standard,” ought to be taken seriously. To wit, the whole accession process is currently blocked and stuck, not only as a result of the decisions of the EU but because of one-sided decisions from countries such as France and Cyprus. At the same time, Turkey faces different treatment on a vast number of subjects, such as the fact it is the only candidate country where citizens have to apply for visas to travel in the EU. And while the EU is neither consistent nor believable on a number of topics being dealt with in the accession talks, it is possible Denmark, as a small and “not being on the verge of collapsing” EU country, may just possess the courage to take on some of these policy paradoxes in a more successful manner than previously seen by other term presidents.

Understanding the spotlight on larger countries

Another truth at hand is that part of the reason there is sometimes a lack of true perception of the efficacy of these smaller countries in EU policies is that there is a constant spotlight on countries such as Italy, Spain and England, or on the Paris-Berlin axis. The success that some of these larger countries have had in other arenas does not always show up in sensitivity towards international problems. It is thus no coincidence that nations such as Norway, Denmark and Sweden are often go-betweens in critical talks and negotiations. It is thus possible that within the framework of EU-Turkey relations, “little” Denmark could actually be more effective that Germany. The fact that the process started up to find a solution to the Cyprus problem under the EU term presidency of Finland was much more courageous than what was done by Germany, which followed Finland, is indicative of the “importance” of the notions of “large” versus “little” in the EU. In fact, in one sense, the EU is actually a union of “little” nations, and it is not even possible for the “larger” nations to impose any decisions not supported by the aforementioned “little” nations. Which is why Denmark is actually in the perfect position to defend a stable and consistent Turkey policy within the EU and could actually cause some pain for Sarkozy by implying he will be isolated during a time when he is headed toward elections.

And so, it is not advisable for Ankara to put off until the second half of 2012 dealing with the institutional dynamic that will be created by Cyprus’ term presidency. Instead, it should take it onto the agenda while Denmark is at the helm of the union. In fact, the influence of Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Stefan Füle on this matter could even be increased with the support of Denmark as term president. And as the institution is basically on holiday for the months of July and August, all important decisions are likely to be pulled back to May and June, which will relax Turkey some, as well as allow Copenhagen to be more effective. With relations with Turkey at an all time low these days in Brussels, no one wants a train wreck due to the Cyprus issue, that is, if we don’t count the powers clearly opposed to Turkish membership in the EU. To sum it up, a Danish term presidency in the months before a Cypriot term presidency is not in a position to either re-enliven the accession talks or place new cornerstones in general Turkish policies. But what it can do is prevent a train wreck and effect the correct shaping of EU “shared policy” on both Turkey and Cyprus.  This is a possible outcome that must not be neglected by Ankara; at the same time, the positive and constructive stances adopted by the new Danish government must be taken seriously by Ankara.

*Ali Yurttagül is a political advisor for the Greens in the European Parliament.