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Turkey – Train wreck ahead?

Article by Dick Leonard

December 6, 2006

If it were only a question of meeting the economic requirements, there can be no serious doubt that Turkey would be fully ready to join the European Union by 2015, or even earlier. If this were to happen, and the country had meanwhile met all the EU’s demands for political and judicial reforms, it should go a long way to counter the largely irrational fears of voters in countries, such as France and Austria, which are currently committed to hold referenda before Turkey can be admitted.

Things might still go wrong in ten years’ time, but the greater risk, in the words of Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, is that there will be a ‘train crash’ over the next few weeks. The Finnish presidency of the Union is still pursuing, behind closed doors, its attempt to find a compromise over the Cyprus problem, which Commissioner Rehn repeated on Monday, would produce a ‘win-win’ outcome which would benefit both the EU and Turkey.

Even the Greek Cypriot government, which has consistently blocked efforts to redeem the EU commitment to open up trade with Northern Cyprus, would secure tangible benefits from the Finnish proposals. These would include the handover of Famagusta to the EU, and of the abandoned resort of Varosha to the UN, enabling Greek Cypriots to return.

The Turkish government understandably feels aggrieved by the tone of the Commission’s progress report, published on November 8, believing that it was given insufficient credit for the progress of its reforms. Rehn showed some sympathy for this on Monday, when he denied that the report had suggested that there had been any backsliding, only that the pace of reform had slackened.

Within the last week, the Turks have announced a further (9th) reform programme, including the institution of an Ombudsman and an undertaking to amend the notorious Article 301 of its constitution, which threatens free speech. Its chief negotiator, Ali Babacan, during a visit to Brussels, pledged on behalf of the government that all the EU’s reform demands would be met in full.

Questioned about the sharp fall in Turkish public support for membership, Babacan said that this reflected more a feeling that the EU did not really want Turkey as a member, rather than disillusionment about the actual benefits which membership would bring. He suggested that a more positive line from the EU, coupled with a reduction in anti-Turkish rhetoric in some member states, would soon be reflected in a rise in the opinion poll figures.

Six former Turkish Foreign Ministers – at least four of whom are known to be strongly pro-EU membership – have meanwhile made an appeal for a suspension of the negotiations until such time that there is a better atmosphere between the EU and Turkey, rather than risk a total breakdown after the European Council meeting next month.

This in itself is a highly risky proposal; it would be extremely difficult to get the negotiations going again after they had been broken off. The ex-Foreign Ministers would be better advised to use their influence on Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government to meet Turkey’s legal obligation to open its ports to Cyprus shipping, despite the actions of the Cyprus government, which has now blocked the opening of no fewer than five chapters in the negotiation.

This would give the Turks the high moral ground, and would virtually force the EU to respond in kind by putting irresistible pressure on the Cyprus government to give way. Ideally, it should accompany this with a rousing affirmation that the adhesion of this uniquely important strategic state to the European Union would be equally in the EU’s and in Turkey’s own interest. If the European Council felt able to do this at its December meeting it would indeed be a good day’s work.

Dick Leonard is author of The Economist Guide to the European Union.

13 November 2006

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