Monday, 10 January 2011

Turkey and the EU: The Disappearing vision

Published in Articles

By Gareth H. Jenkins (vol. 4, no.1 of the Turkey Analyst) 

On December 31, 2010, Belgium’s six month presidency of the EU closed without any chapters in Turkey’s membership negotiations being opened. It was the first time an EU presidency had been concluded without the opening of any chapters since Turkey’s accession process was launched in October 2005. Although at least one chapter is expected to be opened during the first half of 2011, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain the impression that the accession process is still alive, much less that there is any realistic prospect of Turkey joining the EU in the foreseeable future.

BACKGROUND: When membership negotiations were officially inaugurated in October 2005, the EU ruled that Turkey had already effectively fulfilled two of the 35 chapters of the process, leaving 33 to be discussed. But there were problems from the start. When it first came to power in November 2002, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had pushed through a series of liberalizing reform packages and vigorously lobbied the EU to be given a date for the opening of membership talks. In July 2005, the AKP even signed an agreement, commonly known as the Additional Protocol, promising to extend its 1996 Customs Union with the EU to the ten new members who had acceded in May 2004, including the Republic of Cyprus, which Turkey has long refused to recognize.

However, once accession negotiations had been launched, the AKP appeared to lose interest. The liberalizing reform process ground to a halt amid signs that the AKP did not fully understand the requirements of EU membership: not least that, although the EU described the accession process as “negotiations”, in reality it was a question of compliance with EU norms and standards. Instead, the Turkish government appeared to regard it as a process of “give and take”, in which it could obtain exemptions from the body of EU law, known as the acquis communautaire, on the grounds of Turkey’s exceptionality. Turkey also failed to honor its commitments under the Additional Protocol, steadfastly refusing to open its ports and airports to vessels and planes from Cyprus unless the EU also eased the international isolation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), the breakaway statelet in the north of the island which only Turkey recognizes. The result was to effectively index Turkey’s EU accession prospects to a settlement on Cyprus, which has been divided since 1974.

The AKP government’s failure to implement the Additional Protocol has also been a gift to those in the EU who are opposed to Turkey ever acceding; whether for practical reasons – such as the strain on the EU’s resources resulting from the membership of a relatively poor country of 75 million – or out of simple racial and religious prejudice. More insidiously, this instrumentalization of Turkey’s failure to honor the Additional Protocol enabled the AKP – sometimes sincerely, sometimes disingenuously – to claim that the expression of virtually any reservations about Turkey’s membership or any criticism of the  failure to meet the standards required by the acquis communautaire were simply pretexts to mask a more visceral opposition to the country’s accession.

In December 2006, the EU froze eight chapters of Turkey’s accession process for three years pending the implementation of the Additional Protocol. It also ruled that no chapters could be closed until the deadlock was resolved. The sanctions were extended for another 12 months in December 2009 and renewed again in December 2010. In addition, France and Cyprus have used their individual rights as EU members to indefinitely block another nine chapters of Turkey’s accession process, meaning that a total of 17 of the 33 are currently suspended.

To date, 13 chapters have been opened, of which just one – on science and research – had been concluded by the time that the EU introduced its ban on the closure of any more chapters in December 2006. As a result, barring a resolution of the impasse over Cyprus, there are only three chapters that can currently be opened: on competition, on public procurement, and social policy and employment.

IMPLICATIONS: At its summit meeting in Brussels on December 17, 2010, the EU announced that it expected to open the chapter on competition during the Hungarian presidency of the EU in the first half of 2011. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has privately instructed EU Chief Negotiator Egemen Bağış to try to ensure that the chapter on public procurement is also opened in early 2011 so that he can include the opening of two chapters in a list of the AKP’s achievements in the campaign for the Turkish general election in June 2011. However, EU officials remain skeptical and say that there is still much to be done before the chapter on public procurement can be opened.

There is also a general awareness in Brussels that, even if eventual Turkish membership is in danger of becoming only a hypothetical possibility, it is in both the EU’s and Turkey’s interests to keep the accession process alive as long as possible; not least because there is a fear that, without it, the AKP’s increasing authoritarianism could become even worse. If two chapters are opened in the first half of 2011, that would leave only one chapter unopened; and, without any chapters being opened or closed, the accession would soon lose any semblance of momentum.

In recent months, European officials have increasingly focused on trying to find a solution to the deadlock over the Additional Protocol and free up another 17 chapters. In private, Turkish officials have indicated that they are prepared to soften their insistence on full reciprocity; namely the lifting of all restrictions on EU trade with Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus  in return for Ankara lifting its ban on Greek Cypriot ships and planes, what Bağış has described as “a port for a port”. In late 2010, Turkey and the EU appeared to be moving close to an agreement that would have involved merely a token easing of the international embargo on Northern Cyprus; only for the deal to be vetoed by Cyprus before Ankara had given its final approval. In 2011, the officials at the European Commission are expected to renew their efforts to find a solution. However, the Cypriot government has made it clear that it will veto any formula that could be interpreted as legitimizing the Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus by according it some form of international recognition. Yet Turkey is likely to insist on at least a partial relaxation of the international embargo on the TRNC, and recognition of its existence is inherent in any decision to allow contact with it.

As a result, the best hope of resolving the impasse over the Additional Protocol appears to lie in a solution to the Cyprus problem. However, there is currently little prospect of an imminent breakthrough. Indeed, there are signs that the latest round of UN-sponsored negotiations on Cyprus, which were initiated in September 2008, may be about to collapse. More than two years of talks have failed to produce substantive progress on any of the key issues dividing the two sides. In November 2010, during a meeting in New York, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias and TRNC President Derviş Eroğlu that his patience was running out and gave them two months to come up with constructive plans for a solution. The two leaders are due to present their proposals at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on January 25, 2011. Unless there is a breakthrough, Ban Ki-moon is expected to announce – probably in April 2011 – that the UN will withdraw its good offices and scale back its representation on Cyprus. Although representatives of the Cypriot government  and TRNC are likely to remain in contact with each other, in the absence of an outside intermediary to inject some momentum into the negotiations it is difficult to see how they will be able to reach an agreement. 

CONCLUSIONS: Although it is debatable whether the AKP government is genuinely committed to EU membership and all the standards and obligations it entails, there is no doubt that few whether in the government or amongst the Turkish public now believe that the EU would ever allow Turkey to become a member even if it fulfilled at the criteria. Despite its failure to introduce any more EU-inspired liberalizing reforms and its increasingly assertive foreign policy, the AKP is unlikely to abrogate the accession negotiations while the process is still exhibiting visible signs of momentum. However, the same cannot be said of a process which is manifestly moribund, where no chapters can be closed and none are left to be opened; particularly if the AKP receives a further boost to its already excessive self-confidence by being returned to power with a large majority in the general election in June 2011.

If the European Commission succeeds in breaking the deadlock over the Additional Protocol or if there is unexpected progress on Cyprus, not only will there be many more chapters to be opened but – more importantly – Turkey will have an incentive to push through reforms and close some chapters. However, if, as currently seems likely, the efforts fail, the EU will run out of chapters to open in either late 2011 or early 2012. If that happens, it is probably only a matter of time before Turkey abrogates the accession process. In the words of one official from the European Commission: “We could find ourselves with a negotiating process in which there is no negotiating. And once that happens, there may be no way back.”

Gareth Jenkins, a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the CACI & SRSP Joint Center, is an Istanbul-based writer and specialist of Turkish Affairs.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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