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Club Europe: Turkey Faces Challenge Over Cyprus

Club Europe: Turkey Faces Challenge Over Cyprus

Map of Turkey

Column by Yasmine Ryan

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edition on EU-Turkey negotiations

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European Union members will decide this week the extent to which Turkey should be sanctioned for ongoing issues surrounding Cyprus. The divided island remains an obstacle on Turkey’s path to EU membership. In one camp are those pushing for a partial freeze on membership negotiations: France, Germany, Greece and (Greek) Cyprus. In the other, countries like Great Britain and Sweden argue that such a suspension may have serious consequences. Disillusion over Turkey’s likelihood of joining the EU is increasing on all sides.

(AIX-EN-PROVENCE – 10 December 2006) – The official stumbling block is Cyprus. Turkey has failed to respect the 5 December deadline it was given to extend its EU customs union to Cyprus. Turkey does not recognise the Greek Cypriot state which governs the southern half of the Mediterranean island. Rather, its ties are with the internationally-unrecognised Turkish part of the island. Greek Cyprus became an EU member in 2004, and thus Turkey is expected to open its seaports and airports to its southern neighbour. Ankara, however, wants the EU to lift the embargo on the Turkish Cypriot government first.

The issue will be further discussed at a summit meeting on 14 and 15 December. The European Commission has proposed that EU-Turkey negotiations be suspended on 8 out of 35 points related to trade and border controls. Things came to a head when Turkey rejected a compromise proposal by Finland. Apparently aspiring to appear more flexible, on Thursday Ankara indicated that it would consider opening limited trade links.

France and Germany have thrown their weight behind this recommendation. Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Jacques Chirac want the Commission to report back to the EU with a review of Turkish compliance in 18 months. Merkel insisted last Tuesday that ‘Something that we expected didn’t happen. It must have certain consequences.’ Merkel and Chirac are stopping short of demanding the ultimatums that Greece is lobbying for.

But is it really fair for the Cyprus issue to be so central to EU-Turkey negotiations? After all, EU leaders can hardly have forgotten what happened to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s 2004 reunification plan. This plan proposed the two halves of the island being administered separately. Had it been successful, not only would the entire island now be in the EU, but the biggest block to Turkey’s membership would have disappeared.

In the referendum that ensued, 64.9 percent of Turkish Cypriots voted, in good faith, in favour of the plan. Meanwhile, on the dawn of the security of their own EU membership, 75.8 percent of Greek Cypriots voted in the negative. So the plan was abandoned. The problem was that all the pressure was on the Turkish side, and thus the willingness to compromise began and ended there. For the Cypriots, led by President Tassos Papadopoulos, there was no international isolation to end; no risk of not being admitted into the Union.

Today, the situation is even more unequal. Any outcome would surely be more stable if it is negotiated at a later stage in Turkey’s admission process. If Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan were to give away too much ground on the problem at this stage, it would play right into the hands of his – increasingly popular – ultranationalist political opponents. Not such a good idea to be seen as a traitor to the national interest ahead of 2007’s presidential elections.

Europeans should not ignore Turkey’s internal politics before making such demands of their potential ally. While critics are right to continue to insist on broader reform, particularly in the domain of human rights, Erdogan has already used the EU carrot to achieve significant democratisation.

Rejected, Turkish enthusiasm to join the EU has dampened in the face of European reluctance to commit. A poll by the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, for example, shows support for joining the EU is down from 67 percent in 2004 to just a third more recently. The Turkish Generals, marginalized from the political arena in recent years, are once again becoming more vocal.

In rational terms, the EU needs Turkey: to revitalise Europe’s aging population, to ensure access to a large and robust market, to share in its energy resources. Turkey’s economy is booming and many European companies have made major investments there in recent years. Geographically, it occupies an extremely important interregional crossroad that the EU would be wise to incorporate into its territory. Turkish culture offers a similar crossroad: to give hope to disenfranchised Muslim minorities already within EU borders, and to offer a positive role model to other Muslim nations. To undermine the myth of a clash of civilisations, in brief.

No one ever said it would be easy for Turkey to become a fully-fledged member of Club Europe. The nation is from the wrong side of the tracks as far as many European politicians and publics are concerned. To spell it out, it is the country’s Islamic heritage which continues to bother many sceptics. That is what German Chancellor Angela Merkel means when she refers to ‘cultural differences’. French Presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy claims that the EU is incapable of ‘absorbing’ Turkey are in the same line of thinking.

Not all European leaders think this way. British Prime Minister Tony Blair also called on his European colleagues to send ‘positive signals’ to Turkey. Sweden went as far as to send Carl Bildt, its foreign minister, to Ankara last week as a sign of support. Even Pope Benedict XVI changed his formerly negative stance during his visit (28 November to 1 December).

Erdogan strongly warned EU members not to suspend negotiations last Tuesday. He urged them not to make a ‘historic mistake’ at the summit meeting this week, arguing that ‘Membership is part of a global vision, it is the most important project of the 21st Century. It is an issue that cannot be sacrificed to small calculations and mundane issues. To distance Turkey from the negotiating table would be a grave mistake. Turkey has nothing to lose. If anyone will lose, it will be the EU.’

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Yasmine Ryan is a graduate of the University of Auckland, in Political Studies and French language. She is currently completing a Masters degree in International Journalism at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Aix-en-Provence.

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