European Affairs

The EU and Turkey Head for Another Big Test     Print Email
Philippe Lemaître

Turkey's relations with the European Union have always ranged from strained to turbulent, despite the fact that Turkey was one of the first countries to sign an Association Agreement with the then European Community in 1963. All the signs are that the relationship will once again be severely put to the test when the leaders of the 15 EU member states meet in Copenhagen on December 12 and 13 - particularly now that a party with Islamic roots, the AKP, has emerged victorious from elections on November 3.

AKP leaders said their top priority would be Turkey's bid for full EU membership.

Barring an unlikely upset, the Copenhagen summit meeting will formally announce that ten new members will join the European Union, as they have long hoped, starting from January 1, 2004. The newcomers will include eight countries from Central and Eastern Europe - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - and two Mediterranean islands: Malta and Cyprus.

The three remaining candidates, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, will be left by the roadside. Bulgaria and Romania will have to continue negotiating their entry because Brussels does not consider them ready for membership. Turkey's entry negotiations have not even started. The Turks are feeling mistreated and unloved by a Europe that, according to the opinion polls, a majority of them would like to join, but which a minority rejects - the opponents being mainly ultra-nationalists and the stricter devotees of Islam.

Ever since this latest round of EU enlargement was first planned, Ankara has warned that Turkey would react very negatively if Cyprus were to join the European Union without a resolution of its internal political problems. These stem from the division of the island that followed the occupation of its Northern part by the Turkish army in 1974, after the Greek Cypriots sought to unite the island with Greece, and the subsequent creation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

In August of this year, the Turks adopted a series of important political reforms dealing with human rights, the exercise of justice and respect for minorities. The reforms abolished the death penalty, strengthened judicial appeal procedures, and gave a green light to the teaching of the Kurdish language and its use in the media. These steps, which are opposed by many Turks, were taken in response to demands from the European Union.

In return, the Turks are certainly hoping that the EU leaders at the Copenhagen summit will commit themselves to a date for the opening of membership negotiations with Turkey. If the Turks obtain satisfaction on a date, they could forget their strong objections to the entry of Cyprus into the European Union.

This is the bargain that the government in Ankara was implicitly proposing to the European Union before the November 3 elections. The bargain no doubt has the approval of the military, without which nothing important gets done in Ankara. The European Union, however, finds itself extremely embarrassed by the proposal. The Europeans realize that it will be increasingly difficult for them to continue the policies of smoke and mirrors and evasion that they have practiced toward Turkey virtually ever since the beginnings of European integration.

On October 9, the European Commission proposed that all 10 countries in the first wave of new entrants be admitted to the European Union, including, of course, Cyprus. The negotiations with Nicosia have proceeded without major difficulties, and Cyprus entirely fulfills the economic and political criteria required for EU membership.

There was a time when some member states, such as France and the Netherlands, showed reluctance toward the idea of allowing Cyprus to join the European Union if a political solution had not been agreed by the island's Greek and Turkish communities. Barring surprises, that era seems to be past.

The EU member governments have determined, as has the UN Security Council, that in the period since 1995 the Greek Cypriot government in Nicosia has made some gestures, while the Turkish side has scarcely altered its basic position. It was in 1995 that it was decided to introduce a customs union between Turkey and the European Union, and, as a corollary, Cyprus was accepted as a candidate for membership.

The United States has made a very similar assessment. Although Washington is anxious to show consideration for its Turk ally, it is not seeking to intervene to try to delay Cyprus's entry into the European Union. It must be added that Greece would be quick to react to any wavering among the member states that might be aimed at slowing down the arrival of the Cypriots. Athens could go so far as to threaten to block the entire enlargement process.

The ideal solution would certainly be for the two Cypriot communities to find common ground before the Copenhagen Summit. Some in Brussels believe that it is essential for the United Nations to make a final push for agreement immediately after the Turkish elections on November 3, in close cooperation with the European Union.

It is not necessarily out of the question that such an initiative might succeed, they say. After so many past failures, however, it remains to be seen whether Koffi Annan, the UN Secretary General, will find it an opportune moment to engage in such an exercise, or whether he would have the time to do so.

Senior officials in Brussels in charge of Cyprus policy deplore the "huge misunderstanding" that has developed between the European Union and Turkey over the reforms enacted in August.

The Turks correctly see the adoption of the new laws on human rights and political freedoms as a major achievement. They believe that they have made the effort demanded by Brussels and that it is now up to the European Union to respond by setting a date for the opening of entry negotiations.

The EU member states do not see it this way. They certainly welcome the legislative changes, and understand their importance. But while they see the reforms as necessary, they do not believe they are sufficient.

Having burned their fingers in the past, they want to verify that the reforms are carried out effectively, on a daily basis, in a durable manner. It has not been forgotten that in 1995, in order to coax a reluctant European Parliament into approving the Customs Union, Ankara amended its constitution without effecting much real change in the actual situation in the country.

The EU governments are all the more hesitant to commit themselves because they have always put off a fundamental debate, among themselves and with public opinion, over whether it is a good idea to admit Turkey into the European Union. Such a debate would oblige each government to ask itself difficult questions about the nature of the Europe that it wants to build and where its external boundaries should lie.

Is the European Union, for example, economically and financially capable of assimilating a country of 70 million inhabitants, of whom eight million are farmers? Are the Turks capable of hoisting themselves to high enough levels to make accession possible? And what of the cultural and religious differences that frighten many within the European Union?

There is no doubt that it would be dangerous to set in motion the machinery that would lead almost irreversibly to the conclusion of a Turkish accession treaty - with a significant risk that such a treaty might be rejected by one of the national parliaments or by the European Parliament.

Nevertheless, such a scenario, even if it is not the most likely, cannot be excluded. "There are still many uncertainties from now until Copenhagen," explains a diplomat. The Iraqi dimension cannot be ignored: If the United States engages in hostilities against the regime of Saddam Hussein, the entire scenery of the Middle East will change, for Europe as well. Those changes will happen no matter what position the EU member states adopt.

Turkey will become even more indispensable for everybody, to the point that one can make an easy bet that Washington will then exercise real pressure on the European Union to make a gesture toward such a strategically situated ally. There would be a serious chance that the scale, today roughly in balance, would tip in favor of Ankara.

But the most likely scenario remains that Europe will resist Turkey's demands, arguing that the mere adoption of laws is not enough. The EU leaders will ask their diplomats to find the words, and come up with the gestures, necessary to appease the surge of resentment that will certainly follow from Ankara. That will not be easy.

The general view is that in such a situation EU-Turkish relations would probably relapse into a period of tension as serious as that which followed the European Union's Luxembourg summit meeting in 1997, at which the EU leaders refused to endorse Turkey's candidacy.

The leaders retrieved the situation at their summit meeting in Helsinki in December 1999, and Bulent Ecevit, the Turkish Prime Minister went to the meeting to express his satisfaction. The period of calm that followed that meeting, however, looks like it could be short.

At their most recent summit meeting, in Brussels in late October, the EU leaders welcomed the "important steps" Turkey had taken to meet the political and economic criteria for EU membership, and said the process "has brought forward the opening of accession negotiations with Turkey." They did not, however, set a date for the talks to begin.

The Turkish reaction was not encouraging. Sukru Sina Gurel, then Foreign Minister, had this to say: "In the event that the European Union does not take a decision to start negotiations with Turkey within 2003, Turkey-EU relations will suffer greatly and Turkey will be forced to review all aspects of its relations with the EU."

Now the victory of the AKP makes things even more difficult for Brussels. If it rebuffs the new government that is likely to be led by the AKP, it risks looking as if it is delivering a slap in the face to Islam and confirming the notion that the European Union is a "Christian Club."

The problem for the European Union is that whichever course of action it chooses - whether it decides to set a date or not - it will face difficult and potentially serious long-term consequences for its own future.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2002.