EU Positions on Turkey's Membership
Negotiations in the Freezer

Views on Turkey's EU membership bid are still widely divergent in many European countries and in all political parties. Daniela Schröder summarizes the various European positions

The answer remains "maybe." The EU did not slam the door on controversial accession candidate Turkey in December. But whether the country is really welcome if it one day fulfills all the conditions is still not clear. The start of accession negotiations in important areas has been suspended, and the relationship of EU member states to Islamic Turkey remains unclear.

The German EU Presidency headed by Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel has no problem placing the question of Turkey in the freezer. After all, talks with Ankara have so far consistently ended in dispute, mostly over Ankara's persistent refusal to open Turkish ports and airports to traffic from EU member state Cyprus.

Heads of states and EU leaders are also frequently at loggerheads whenever the subject of Turkey's accession comes up for discussion.

EU cabinet's at odds about accession

Within the German government even crucial persons in the German EU Presidency hold opposing positions. While Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel still considers all options to be open, CDU/CSU head Merkel prefers a so-called privileged partnership with Turkey: Ankara would then have the same obligations as all other EU members, but would have no say in shaping EU policies.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD), on the other hand, sees Turkey as a bridge between the Christian and Islamic cultures and advocates full membership.

EU experts, however, call the suspension of talks over adopting EU regulations in the areas of trade und commerce, which EU foreign ministers resolved in December 2006, a clear reprimand to the Turkish government. But it is no more than a political signal. Nonetheless, talks in these areas will resume only after Ankara fully implements the customs treaty with the EU and opens Turkey's ports and airports for Cypriot traffic.

Furthermore, all future talks in other policy areas will only be concluded after Turkey has fulfilled its obligations in the Customs Union. But Ankara may continue its work in adopting EU laws unhindered. This would simplify and speed up later talks.

Funneling divergent views

It could have been worse. When the EU foreign ministers agreed last December to suspend accession talks with Turkey in eight of 35 policy areas, they remained far below demands from various member states, which went so far as to call for breaking off accession talks completely.

The resolution once again masks the divide between membership advocates and opponents. But the answer to the question of what the EU ultimately wants to do with Turkey remains elusive. When EU member states decided to initiate accession talks with Turkey in October 2005, they left open what the results of the talks would be.

In any case, the country would not automatically join the EU. This enabled EU member states to funnel their divergent views into a process and avoid a political decision.

Europe divided over the issue

A number of member states such as Austria, France, and the Netherlands, as well as the German Christian Democrats currently do not want Turkey to become an EU member state. Opposed to this is the clear "yes" to full membership voiced by Great Britain, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and Finland, as well as the Social Democratic partner in the German government. The East European countries who entered the EU in May 2004 are at least not opposed to a new member state called Turkey.

Nicolas Sarkozy (photo: AP)
Nicolas Sarkozy, the current French Interior Minister, is among the most vocal opponents of Turkey's membership bid

​​Immediately after the EU Summit in December British Prime Minister Tony Blair worked hard to stir up a new dynamic in talks with Ankara, but his days at the head of his government are numbered, and the views of his successor Gordon Brown are more critical of Europe.

Also what remains to be seen is whether a future French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who as the current French Interior Minister is among the most vocal opponents of Turkey's membership bid, will change the positive view last expressed by Jacques Chirac. Sarkozy has already announced that he plans to hold a referendum. Vienna also wants to let its own citizens decide. And only a unanimous agreement by the EU-27 can thaw out the frozen phase of accession talks.

"The internal EU situation should in effect lead to the end of the talks, which are subject to the principle of unanimity," reasons Heinz Kramer, the expert on Turkey at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

Turkey could turn its back on Europe

But even those opposed to Turkey's membership bid are aware of the importance the country, which borders on Iraq, Syria, Iran, and the Caucasus, plays in terms of security. In addition, a definitive end to the talks would send negative signals to the Islamic world. Rejected by the EU, Ankara could also turn its back on Europe and seek affiliation with alternative allies such as Russia, for instance.

When the association treaty between the predecessor of the EU, the European Economic Community (EEC), and Turkey was signed in 1963, Christian Democrat Walter Hallstein, then president of the EEC Commission, said: "Turkey is a part of Europe."

His fellow party member Hartmut Nassauer, vice chairman of the EPP-ED fraction in the European Parliament, sees it differently today: "Turkey is not a European country."

As the second largest NATO member Turkey is an important political ally and plays an increasingly significant role for the EU's energy supply and energy security. Turkey, however, lives "in a different cultural environment, which has elements that are quite foreign," says Nassauer. It would thus be better to have the country as a partner at our side than as a member.

Martin Schulz, head of the Social Democratic fraction in the EU parliament, calls for Turkey to continue to press ahead with fundamental reforms. Ankara must still make more progress, especially in the area of human rights and basic civil liberties. "In the long run Turkey's membership is in the security and economic interests of Europe," says Schulz. But both EU representatives stress that accession is not possible until Turkey opens its ports for traffic from Cyprus.

Cyprus as a pretext

The example of Turkey shows that fulfilling the criteria for EU membership is no longer merely a matter of procedure, but can also involve a political decision. To be sure, the bone of contention involving Cyprus may sound like a mere technicality, but for Turkey it means recognizing the Greek Cypriot government as the only legitimate authority on the hotly contested island.

photo: AP
The bone of contention - Cyprus

​​Since the EU insists that the Ankara Protocol be fully implemented, only a breakthrough in the Cyprus question can bring a new dynamic to accession talks, says SWP expert Kramer. The problem can only be resolved through the United Nations. The hands of the EU itself are tied, for with the accession of the Republic of Cyprus it has become a party in the dispute over the island. Furthermore, says Kramer, for many in the EU the question of Cyprus is just a pretext that provides them with material arguments to support their anti-membership stance.

A breakthrough in the problem of Cyprus is not yet in sight. Nikosia, however, in contrast to its previous stance, declared in December that the conflict would have to be resolved through the United Nations. The Cypriot government also recently gave up its resistance to lifting the ban on direct trade with the Turkish-controlled northern part of the island.

The EU foreign ministers unanimously decided in mid-January to immediately initiate talks over resuming direct trade. EU diplomats hope that this decision will in turn persuade the Turkish government to take new steps in the matter of Cyprus.

Daniela Schröder

© 2007

Daniela Schröder works in Brussels as a freelance EU correspondent for the dpa International Service in English, writes for the German government newspaper "Das Parlament," and publishes articles in German newspapers.

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

Accession Negotiations in Crisis
Will Turkey Find Its Way to Europe?
At the close of 2006, the EU commission presented its progress report on Turkey's accession to the EU, identifying the country's achievements as well as failures. Andreas Marchetti reports on the background and prospects of the negotiations

Commentary Cem Özdemir
Mutual Understanding in European and Turkish Interests
In the discussion between the European Union and Turkey, Cem Özdemir calls for fresh impetus in the Cyprus issue. He says the German government also needs to do all it can during its term as EU president for rapprochement between the conflicting parties

Turkey's Application for Membership of the EU
Litmus Test for Europe
he gulf between the secular elite and religious forces in Turkey is wider than ever. But, asks Zafer Senocak, is that not all the more reason for the EU to support the secular and democratic forces in Turkey more than it has done in the past in order to bind the country more closely to Europe?

Related Topics