Turkey and the European Union: 2014 and Beyond

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After two years of growing frustration on the Turkish side with a total lack of progress in its EU accession negotiations and the sheer lack of interest on the part of key EU players, 2013 seems to be the year in which Turkey can at least make some modest steps forward again. After France announced it was willing to unblock one of the five chapters (regional policy) that were declared untouchable by then President Nicolas Sarkozy, the technical part of the accession process can be resumed. The French decision is symbolically important for two reasons: It shows that, unlike his predecessor, President Francois Hollande is not a committed, ideologically inspired opponent of Turkish EU membership. Besides, restarting the official talks between Turkish and European bureaucrats on a new and quite challenging chapter will end, at least for the foreseeable future, the speculation that when faced with an ongoing impasse it was time to stop the entire project.

During her visit to Turkey in February, the restart got the blessing of German Chancellor Angela Merkel who stressed, once again, that, although personally she is still not in favor of Turkey's full membership, the accession negotiations should be continued. On top of that, there are indications that maybe in the course of this year a second, previously frozen chapter could be opened as a result of new French flexibility or a change in Cypriot calculations.

For the moment, the impact of the election of Nicos Anastasiades to the Cypriot presidency on Turkey's EU path is hard to determine. On the one hand, Anastasiades did support the Annan plan for the reunification of the island in 2004 (as did the Turkish Cypriots and Turkey), and it is also true the center-right politician is a strong supporter of eventual Cypriot membership of NATO, which can only happen if Turkey does not use its veto. On the other hand, the first priority of the new president will be to strike a deal with the EU on an aid package to prevent the island from going bankrupt. Only after that hurdle has been taken would he be able to dedicate some of his time to finding a creative way to overcome the stalemate in the reunification talks. In doing so, he, undoubtedly, will be aware of the fact that most Greek Cypriots, including his coalition partner, are not at all in the mood to make substantial concessions.

Still, under somewhat veiled pressure from the EU (for instance as an undeclared part of the financial rescue operation), Anastasiades might be willing to lift the Cypriot veto on the energy chapter, a crucial element in future Turkey-EU relations and, moreover, a move that could bring some relief to the growing tensions between Cyprus and Turkey about the exploitation of the recently found gas reserves off the shore of the divided island.

A Shifting Balance

The opening of new chapters and the conciliatory speeches coming out of Paris, Berlin and maybe Nicosia are all indications of a shared feeling inside the EU, even among opponents of Turkish full membership, that it is better to keep the process going and see what happens in the future than to pull the plug now and break off negotiations. That would be difficult anyway on the EU side because to do so requires unanimity among member states, and with ongoing strong support for Turkey's accession in countries like the UK and Sweden that is not very likely to happen. Turkey itself could of course decide it has had enough of all the European foot dragging. It is true that in parts of the Turkish media and in many tea houses such a suggestion has been welcomed by frustrated Turks who believe that their country is doing fine outside the EU and don't want to be seen as beggars in front of a closed European door. But with so many other urgent and sensitive issues on its agenda, it does not seem very plausible that the Erdogan government would want to rock the EU boat any time soon. Despite the occasional anti-EU rhetoric in Ankara, which has been full of anger and disappointment, the ruling party knows very well that cutting ties with the EU would have enormous and unforeseen consequences for the Turkish economy, domestic political balances and Turkey's standing in the region. …