2012-01-03

Turkey-EU relations: where do they stand going into 2012?

2011 did not signal there is a light at the end of Turkey's EU tunnel, and 2012 looks to be even more problematic.

By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 03/01/12

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As Turkey enters 2012, its EU accession process remains on the brink of paralysis. On the political front there has not been any significant progress, while the eurozone crisis has shifted European and Turkish policy makers' attention away from further expansion and integration.

  • Euroscepticism is on the rise in Turkey, while EU member states have differing views towards Turkey's membership. [Reuters]

    Euroscepticism is on the rise in Turkey, while EU member states have differing views towards Turkey's membership. [Reuters]

  • Despite a push by the UN to bring peace to Cyprus, the two communities have failed to resolve decades' old issues. [Reuters]

    Despite a push by the UN to bring peace to Cyprus, the two communities have failed to resolve decades' old issues. [Reuters]

  • The EC Turkey progress report was critical of restrictions on freedom of expression and extended pretrial detention periods, among other issues. [Reuters]

    The EC Turkey progress report was critical of restrictions on freedom of expression and extended pretrial detention periods, among other issues. [Reuters]

Since June 2010, not a single new chapter has been opened. Out of 33 chapters, only 13 are open, 17 are blocked, and Turkey appears to have no intention to take the steps necessary to open the remaining three.

The general picture raises questions about whether the road to the EU may well be heading towards a dead end.

Nilgun Arisan Eralp, from the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), describes EU-Turkey relations as being in a "state of comatose", adding that the EU has lost almost all leverage over Turkey.

According to another EU expert, Sema Capanoglu of the Economic Development Foundation of Turkey (IKV), there is stagnation in the negotiation process because of the political barriers placed before Turkey by the EU.

The biggest political obstacle to Turkey's EU accession negotiations remains the dormant Cyprus conflict, over which neither the Greek nor Turkish Cypriots seem willing to budge from their positions.

The inability of both communities on the island to come to agreement is mirrored by Turkey and the EU who, entrenched as they are in their respective policies towards the divided island, leave themselves little room to advance Turkey's membership prospects.

Nonetheless, 2011 did witness an increased interest by the international community to resolve the Cyprus conflict, which according to Sylvia Tiryaki, deputy director of the Global Political Trends Centre in Istanbul, can be attributed to three main factors: "The initiation by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon of a series of meetings between the leaders of the two communities; the upcoming EU term presidency of the Republic of Cyprus in the second half of 2012 and the Greek Cypriots' decision to start drilling for offshore oil and gas."

Tiryaki says that despite the high expectations for a final settlement, resolution of the Cyprus conflict is still not near. "Leaders have been discussing approximately the same issues since 1968 without a major success," she says, "and 2012 will likely pass in the same fashion."

"Let's hope that Greek Cypriots do not try to stage more fait accompli similar to that of unilateral hydrocarbons drilling prior to the final settlement," she adds.

The upcoming EU presidency of the Greek Cypriots has been a thorny issue that threatens to completely derail Turkish-EU co-operation in a number of areas, with Turkish authorities delivering ultimatums that it will freeze relations with the EU if the Greek Cypriots are handed the rotating EU presidency in July.

In response, EU officials declared at the December summit that Turkey must show full respect for the role of the EU presidency, setting the two sides up for a troublesome relationship in the second half of 2012.

Taking into consideration the barriers to advancing relations, the European Commission announced a new "positive agenda" for EU-Turkey relations in an effort to maintain some degree of momentum. The new agenda will focus on three areas of common concern: resolution of the problems related with the Customs Union; easing of visa requirements; and co-operation in counterterrorism efforts.

"This agenda may help strengthen relations between Turkey and the EU as a complement to the negotiation process," Selcen Oner of Bahcesehir University underlines.

However, some claim that this new agenda is an attempt to distract attention away from the stalled accession process.

Despite the stand-off over Cyprus, there are also important European actors who say Europe needs Turkey just as much as Turkey needs Europe. Eleven EU foreign ministers published a joint text in EU Observer on December 1st, saying that Turkey's accession process is of vital strategic and economic importance for both the EU and Turkey.

"It's common practice to refer to such spectacular initiatives just before big events in the EU, like the summits," explains former ambassador Ozdem Sanberk. "However, they are also important in terms of balancing the negative messages towards the member states' public opinions."

In the face of political roadblocks, Turkey-EU economic ties continue to underpin the relationship, fostered this year by Turkey's rapid economic growth in a generally bleak global economic environment.

"Despite the economic recession in the EU, 85% of all global investments in Turkey and 92% of investments made in the first half of 2011 came from EU member states," explains EU expert Capanoglu.

Turkey also became the world's fastest growing economy with growth of 10.2% in the first half of 2011.

"Turkey has had an increasing self-confidence in 2011 because of its economic growth," notes Oner.

This self-confidence was reflected in a statement made in December during a visit to Denmark by Turkey's EU Minister Egemen Bagis, where he said in reference to the European crisis, "Hold on Europe! Turkey is coming to the rescue!"

However much Turkish officials congratulate themselves, Turkey still remains vulnerable to European economic woes and will likely sink or rise along with the economic fate of Europe.

Approximately half of Turkey's exports go to the EU, while nearly 40% of Turkey's imports come from the EU.

Europe's debt crisis has also had an impact on Turkey's political integration, as the EU focused on making economic recovery a top priority, and shifted away from issues like enlargement.

Economic issues and Cyprus aside, Turkey still faces a long upward struggle to reach European standards, especially those involving fundamental freedoms and democratisation.

Reforms have been slow, and in some areas Turkey even appears to be digressing from its European trajectory, sparking concern and condemnation by the pro-Europe camp in Turkey and policy makers in Europe.

The European Commission's October progress report for Turkey "emphasised deficiencies in the fields of freedom of speech, freedom of media and long detention periods in Turkey", explains Oner.

Experts warn that the EU accession process has started to suffer from a lack of domestic ownership and willingness for further reforms. The EU, which had in the past acted as an anchor for reforms, may no longer be playing the same role.

"Turkey has slowed down the reform process with a lack of progress in the fields of transparency, accountability, the fight against corruption, gender equality, the freedom of expression, freedom of the press and labour unions," Eralp underlines.

Since 1998 -- the starting date of the progress reports -- the EU has offered a roadmap for domestically-driven efforts at democratisation, argues Professor Murat Somer of Koc University.

"Now that Turkish-EU relations and the EU's own future are uncertain, the marriage between capitalism and liberal democracy is troubled, and Turks no longer look to Europe to evaluate their democracy. How liberal-democratic will Turkey be in the future?" Somer asks.

Looking forward, analysts see a number of formulas to at least trudge through the coming year.

The ongoing uncertainty in the Middle East and North Africa on the heels of Arab uprisings has increased Turkey's strategic value to Europe and provided one area where the two partners can work together.

"The relations can be given a fresh impetus, if both parties can benefit from the opportunities provided by the current international conjuncture," says Eralp, referring to the anti-government, pro-democracy movements sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa.

Still, Sanberk argues the resolution of the Cyprus conflict and the opening of blocked chapters provide the only critical key for paving the way to improved relations.

"There is also an effort from the EU side in order to revive stalled EU-Turkey relations. However, all these efforts can only reach their end if the political and judicial impasses are solved," he concludes.

Looking at the direction talks between the two communities on Cyprus are heading, the Greek Cypriot's control of the EU presidency in the second half of 2012, the lack of consensus on Turkey's membership in EU member states, the eurozone crisis, and the rise of euroscepticism in Turkish public opinion, it is difficult to say that 2012 looks promising for EU-Turkey relations.

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