EU Accession Negotiations with Turkey

Erdogan's Obstacle Course towards Joining the European Union

Now that the EU has officially announced the start of accession negotiations, the Turkish leadership must prove that it can resolve the many obstacles facing its EU membership. Ömer Erzeren summarizes the sticking points

Now that the EU has officially announced the start of accession negotiations, the Turkish leadership must now prove that it can resolve the many obstacles facing its EU membership. These range from the Cyprus and Armenian issues to a guarantee of democratic basic rights. Ömer Erzeren summarizes the sticking points

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) meets EU Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso in Brussels, photo: AP
In reaching out towards Europe, Prime Minister Erdogan is walking on thin ice, writes Ömer Erzeren

​​When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won parliamentary elections almost three years ago, one of its most important election promises was that it would do its utmost to ensure Turkish membership in the EU. Many commentators abroad found it surprising that such a program was being promoted by a conservative party, whose leadership is made up of practicing Moslems.

Almost three years later, the party can rightfully claim to have kept its word, at least on this election promise. Turkey has never been as close to Europe as it is today. Accession negotiations are scheduled to begin on 3 October.

The changes to the laws and constitution made under Tayyip Erdogan's government, which have contributed to the democratization of the country, were the preconditions laid out last year by the EU heads of state and government when they decided on the 3 October date for accession negotiations.

In the past few weeks and months, resistance grows fiercer from both within the EU and from Turkish EU opponents.

Cyprus, a divided country

France and Austria, in particular, were strongly pushing for Turkey to be denied membership in the EU. In Germany, as well, the CDU/CSU attempted to mobilize against the start of accession negotiations and instead promoted the model of a "privileged partnership."

On top of this are the enormous tensions existing between Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus, which is already a EU member state. As a precondition to the start of accession negotiations, Turkey signed a supplemental protocol, which extends the existing EU custom union to the 10 new members including Cyprus.

Turkey then issued a one-sided declaration stressing that the signing is not tantamount to a recognition of the Republic of Cyprus. In a laboriously arrived at counter-declaration, the EU demanded that Turkey allow Cypriot ships and planes the use of its ports and airports. It further states that the recognition of Cyprus "is a necessary component of accession."

A political deadlock

The island has been split into a Greek-Cypriot controlled south and a Turkish north since Turkey invaded in 1974. The invasion followed a fascist lead coup, which had as its goal the union of the island with Greece. Today, UN troops patrol the artificial border.

The situation has been politically deadlocked for decades. Upon the insistence of Greece, who threatened to block EU membership of the Eastern European countries, the way was cleared for Cyprus to join the EU, although it is effectively a divided country.

After decades of having uncompromisingly rejected UN peace efforts, Turkish Cypriots finally decided to change their position. The impetus was EU membership for the Republic of Cyprus, which only represents the Greek-Cypriots in the south, but claims the right to represent the island as a whole.

Cyprus issue haunts accession negotiations

The island has been living in a topsy-turvy world for almost two decades. The Turkish-Cypriots in the north recently elected a new social democratic, reform-minded political leadership, which has committed itself to striving for reunification. A vast majority of the northern Cypriots voted for the UN peace plan. At the same time, the Greek-Cypriot leadership was propagating nationalistic slogans in opposition to Kofi Annan's peace plan.

Just a few weeks before the island's EU membership, Greek-Cypriots rejected the UN peace plan in a referendum. Before the vote, the Greek-Cypriot president had guaranteed the EU leadership that a political solution would be found. The reality turned out to be rather different. Former European Enlargement Commissioner Günter Verheugen said he had felt "deceived."

The Cyprus conflict has come back to haunt accession negotiations, especially now that the Republic of Cyprus is a EU member state. Without a political solution, Turkish membership in the EU is unthinkable.

Turkey's politcal tour de force

On the other hand, the Turkish government has completed a course correction in its Cyprus policy with a domestic political tour de force. Turkey can hardly agree to the alternative to the UN peace plan dictated by the Republic of Cyprus, which would effectively marginalize Turkish-Cypriots. It is therefore no surprise that the bureaucrats in the Turkish foreign ministry are prepared for long-winded negotiations.

The Turkish government has not had an easy task in its negotiations with the EU. Plagued by the Cyprus issue as well as the broadsides from France and Austria, it must also ward off strong opposition from within the state apparatus, which has provided Turkey's opponents in the EU with more ammunition only weeks before the start of accession negotiations.

One begins to get the impression that some sort of conspiracy is underway. The charges brought against the writer Orhan Pamuk, this year's winner of the prestigious German Peace Prize, can be seen as part of this.

A new direction in Armenia policy

Just last week, the Istanbul administrative court issued a sensational decision banning a conference on the expulsion and massacre of Armenians in 1915. Critical Turkish scholars organized the conference in response to the official taboo against discussing the mass killings.

Prime Minister Erdogan criticized the court's banning order with unusually sharp words and spoke of a "provocation." The conference took place nonetheless, despite the court ban, which was deemed unconstitutional by experts.

Political momentum contributing to democratization

A vast police contingent protected the conference from egg and tomato throwing fascist demonstrators. The foreign minister even sent a message, referring to this "tragic period" and the suffering of the "Turkish and Armenian peoples."

In reaching out towards Europe, Prime Minister Erdogan is walking on thin ice. Yet he knows that the vast majority of the population stands behind him on this issue. The negotiations will not be an easy ride and it is in no way certain that they will lead to Turkish membership in the EU.

Negotiations can be broken off at any time. The only thing that is certain is that negotiations with the EU so far have unleashed a political momentum within Turkey, contributing to a much greater democratization of society.

Ömer Erzeren

© 2005

Translation from German: John Bergeron

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