TCS Daily

Torn Between Two Lovers

By T.K. Vogel - June 12, 2006 12:00 AM

Today, the European Union will start accession talks with Turkey, a key step in Ankara's bid for eventual membership. But what should have been a moment of joy in a relationship that has too often been marked by mutual suspicion and second-guessing has instead induced anxiety on both sides.

Turkish leaders are nervous about having to explain an apparent slackening in their reform drive, and their continued refusal to allow goods from the Greek part of Cyprus to pass through Turkish ports and airports. The division of Cyprus -- Turkey has been occupying one-third of the island ever since Turkish troops invaded in 1974 following a pro-Greek coup -- is one of modern diplomacy's most intractable problems. Turkey, with some reason, sees the Greek Cypriots as spoilers in a halting peace process aimed at reuniting the island ever since the Greek part rejected a UN peace plan just before entering the EU in May 2004, while the EU is pointing out that Turkey will need to officially recognize, and deal with, all current member states before it can become a member itself. Few dispute that this is, in principle, a reasonable stance; it is much less clear whether now is the right moment to press the Turks. This isn¹t keeping the Greek Cypriots from throwing around their weight, which hasn¹t gained them many friends in Brussels or Washington. But Greek Cypriot obstinacy, and their threat to veto the closing of individual chapters of the Turkey talks, has pushed the issue to a point where careful wording alone, or a declaratory commitment to general principle, will no longer do. For better or worse, the fate of an island the size of an Istanbul suburb may yet decide whether 70 million Turks will enter the EU. 

Of more immediate relevance to millions of hopeful Turks are the reforms that remain to be carried out. "The pace of change has slowed in the last year," states an EU report quoted by the Financial Times ahead of this week's meeting. "There is an urgent need to both implement legislation already in force and... to take further legislative initiatives. Further efforts are needed to ensure full civilian control over the military, in line with practice in EU member states." According to the FT, the report also lists the torture and mistreatment of detainees and the charges brought against individuals for merely expressing their opinions on touchy subjects as areas that need further improvement.

This explains part of the weariness European policy-makers feel when dealing with Turkey's candidacy. But Cypriot access to Turkish ports and Turkish recognition of Cyprus, as well as the domestic reforms that still need to be carried out, are questions that can be resolved through the tried-and-tested EU approach of using the prospect of membership as a lever with which to induce change in applicant countries. This has worked in places like Slovakia, a laggard among Central Europe's aspirants for most of the 1990s and today the region's wunderkind, or in Romania, which is set to become a member (alongside Bulgaria) next January. Concern over these open questions therefore explains only some of the discomfort raised by membership negotiations.

A larger role is played by a profound European ambiguity about Turkey and its place, if any, in "Europe." Both in the institutional form of the EU and as a somewhat shapeless cultural, social, and political space, "Europe" has no clue whether Turkey is, or should be, or indeed can be, part of it. This is fair enough, one might say -- were it not for the little detail that this question was in principle settled over forty years ago, in 1963, when the European Economic Community offered Turkey an Association Agreement that made explicit reference to the possibility of eventual membership. This position was underlined when Turkey was made a candidate country in late 1999, and again in 2004, and again last October, when this week's opening of membership talks was decided upon. In these years, Turkey has changed almost beyond recognition. Even those who define Europe primarily in value terms (a dangerous endeavor at the best of times) admit that Turkey, if anything, has become more "European:" it has dramatically improved its human-rights record, brought an end to the Kurdish insurgency (though it's flickering again right now), opened its economy, and so on. So what is it that prompts these tortured debates in Europe every time the issue of Turkey is raised?

The answer lies in the EU's institutional culture, which allowed EU policy-makers and the leaders of member states to take a decision -- offering candidacy to Turkey -- that was far ahead of public opinion. It also allowed the same decision-makers to bungle the job of explaining to hostile electorates why Turkey should be in the EU, a job for which they once had plenty of time. But now, time is running out.

On Monday, Turkey will open membership talks on 35 issue areas, or "chapters," beginning with science and research, and education and culture. The first of these was seen as so uncontroversial (and limited in scope) that Ankara hoped to open and close it in just one day -- June 12 -- but then, France tabled a proposal that would prevent this, and several member states reportedly backed it. France has now changed its stance; even Cyprus may end up not using its veto power -- this time around. But the diplomatic wrangling surrounding the opening of talks with Turkey is a troubling indication that accession will be much tougher for Turkey than it was for the countries (Cyprus among them) entering in 2004, or even Bulgaria and Romania, which recently got a taste of the EU's new-found toughness on accession. Cyprus will come up again this fall, when the EU reviews Turkey's compliance with its obligations, and a real crisis could follow then. In the run-up to a general election next year, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- who is said to have an eye on the presidency -- may not be in the mood to compromise over Cyprus, especially if he feels that the Greek Cypriots are being unreasonable (a feeling increasingly shared within the EU and in Washington).

What emerges from all this is that EU policy-makers are no longer holding the initiative. They may have offered membership to Turkey in bad faith back in 1999 and now feel honor-bound by their commitment after it turned out that Turkey, perhaps contrary to expectations, was willing to undergo the profound transformation necessary to become a serious candidate. Membership talks will proceed after June 12: it is way too late for the EU to now have the sort of debate it should have had before the prospect of membership was held out to Turkey. But the tasks ahead are clear for both Ankara and Brussels (and Berlin, and Paris). Turkey has to carry on with its reform at home -- something its citizens need and deserve regardless of EU membership -- and hope this will convince mainstream European opinion that the country is worthy of accession. European decision-makers, meanwhile, have to explain to their citizens why Turkey's stability is in their interest too and why Turkey belongs in Europe. Failure to deliver on either count will have dire consequences.

The author is a South-East Europe editor with Transitions Online (, a newsweekly covering the post-Communist world. He has written for the Wall Street Journal Europe, the International Herald Tribune, and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.



Parallels with North America
I cannot help but think after reading your piece how utterly strange it is that the EU is dealing with Turkey because it feels obligated to, and that the process of engagement might solve some long-standing security and stability problems and might give the West a strong presence in the Arabic world, and may actually do more in the long run to put an end to radical militant Islamofascism than invading Afghanistan and Iraq, and bombing Iran back into the 19th century might ever accomplish. I say strange because in our hemisphere, we want to build walls and use drones and webcams to keep our neighbors out. Really folks, if Europe feels an obligation to go through the process with Turkey, shouldn't we feel a 20x stronger obligation to do everything we can to help Mexico further liberalize its politics and economy and become a thriving partner?

Agreed, only Turkey is still.....
a greater threat being an islamic nation that could be the next Iran with a psycho in charge.

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