Magazine article The Middle East

Has Turkish Tide Turned against European Unity? Few Expected That Turkey's Path to European Union Membership Would Be a Smooth One. Yet the Current Dismal State of Relations Is Worse Than Even the Most Pessimistic of Turco and Euro-Sceptics Could Have Imagined When the EU Agreed to Start Accession Talks Back in 2004. Jon Gorvett Reports from Istanbul

Magazine article The Middle East

Has Turkish Tide Turned against European Unity? Few Expected That Turkey's Path to European Union Membership Would Be a Smooth One. Yet the Current Dismal State of Relations Is Worse Than Even the Most Pessimistic of Turco and Euro-Sceptics Could Have Imagined When the EU Agreed to Start Accession Talks Back in 2004. Jon Gorvett Reports from Istanbul

Article excerpt

MORE THAN THREE years down the line, many in Ankara and Brussels say there is very little to show for a process that at one point seemed to carry such global weight. The accession of 99% Muslim Turkey was supposed to see the end of the Islamic/ Western "clash of civilisations" debate, or on the other hand, leave Old Europe dangerously open to an Islamic contagion.

Yet time has marched on without either scenario looking any more likely, while the chasm of prejudices, interests and issues that separate the two parties has continued to yawn wide, with only the most cursory of initial engineering work done on attempts to bridge the gap.

The time line is none-too impressive. After agreeing to open membership negotiations in December 2004, the accession talks themselves did not get underway until October 2005. At that point, six out of the 32 chapters, or subject areas, that would form the final accession treaty were opened for discussion. By the start of the latest meeting of the Intergovernmental Accession Conference for Turkey on 19 December 2007, six chapters had been opened, with only one "provisionally" closed--the science and technology chapter, which is generally seen as the easiest of all.

Behind the slowdown are a number of factors, some of which could be categorised as cyclical and some more structural.

On the cyclical side, there was the election of Nicolas Sarkozy in France in 2007. Unlike his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, the new French leader made no bones about his opposition to Turkish membership of the EU. This appears to have given some critical mass to growing discontent over Turkish accession amongst EU member states, particularly Austria and Germany, both of whom had earlier declared their opposition, yet without taking any concrete moves to obstruct.

The effect of the new French leadership was rapidly apparent. Sarkozy moved quickly with a proposal for a two-tier Europe, suggesting a Mediterranean Union for the also-rans, and then insisted the December 2007 conference be termed not an 'accession' conference but an 'intergovernmental' one. In mid-2008, France also takes over the EU presidency, an event seen by many analysts as likely to mark a complete freeze up in the glacial talks.

Meanwhile, over the channel, Turkey's strongest EU ally, Britain, has also been affected by a cyclical downturn. The leadership of PM Gordon Brown is widely perceived in Ankara as having stepped down a few gears from the enthusiasm for Turkish membership in London during the Tony Blair era. Turkey's other allies, broadly the Mediterranean states, have also had troubles of their own, with the Romano Prodi government in Italy falling in late January.

So while Turkey's allies have been weakening in Europe, Turkey's foes have been growing stronger.

Meanwhile, in Turkey itself, 2007 was a packed political year, with both presidential and parliamentary elections, alongside a renewal of conflict with the Kurdish nationalist guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The combination of these events forced a much more nationalist hand on the Turkish government, further militating against negotiations with Europe. Support for EU membership lurched downwards to its worst levels ever, with a Eurobarometer poll published in December 2007 showing that only 53% of Turks thought their country would benefit from EU membership. In spring 2007, the figure had been 63%, while during the 1990s the figure had sometimes come close to 90%.

Yet many Turkey-EU watchers are wondering whether or not these cyclical factors will simply blow over, with a new batch of elections and political leaders getting back to the fundamental programme. This remains unchanged, the argument runs, because Turkey will always be a major catch for Europe--and vice versa.

This view also seems to be that of Olli Rehn, the EU commissioner for enlargement, and of the majority of EU diplomats and professionals. …

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