Wednesday, 09 April 2008

Turkey and the EU: Beyond the Cyprus Imbroglio

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By the Editors (vol. 1, no. 4 of the Turkey Analyst)

In December 2006, citing Turkey’s refusal to extend its customs union to Cyprus, EU Foreign Ministers suspended talks on eight of the thirty-five negotiation chapters in Turkey’s accession negotiations. But the importance of Cyprus has been overblown: Cyprus was only the superficial reason for the ‘slowdown’ decision. Both parties to the accession talks in fact needed to gain time and tend to internal matters. What does the current Turkish turmoil imply for the Cyprus issue and the broader future of Turkey’s EU accession negotiations?

BACKGROUND: There has been no significant progress toward a solution to the Cyprus unification question since the Greek Cypriot side rejected the UN-sponsored Annan Plan in an April 2004 referendum. The problem became even more complicated in May of that year, when the Republic of Cyprus gained full EU membership. Turkey, which has always insisted on solving the Cyprus question through an international multilateral agreement under the auspices of the UN, was now confronted with a EU dimension to the problem – as a precondition to its own accession.

The December 2004 EU Summit agreed to open accession talks with Turkey by October 2005 on one condition: Turkey had to extend the 1963 EU Association Agreement to the ten new EU members, including Cyprus. Ankara’s priority was to open accession talks. Thus, in July 2005, it signed the Additional Protocol extending its customs union to new members. However, Turkey’s signature did not mean a diplomatic recognition of the Republic of Cyprus. This was explicitly stated in a declaration attached to the document. The EU authorities underlined that the declaration was unilateral and did not change the legal obligations of Turkey under the signed Ankara Protocol. Turkey would still be expected to fully implement the provisions of the Protocol towards all parties, including Cyprus. Cyprus, thus, was well on its way to be one of the major problems in Turkey’s accession talks.

Interestingly, EU diplomats did not allow the Cyprus problem to block the perspective of Turkey’s accession. On September 19, 2005, they decided that Turkey could recognize Cyprus anytime during its accession process, estimated to take the better part of a decade. This opened the way to initiate accession talks with Turkey, as promised, on October 3, 2005. The Cyprus problem, in other words, was not solved but consciously circumvented and postponed in order to give a message of support for Turkey.

The Cyprus problem reappeared as an obstacle to Turkey’s accession negotiations in late 2006. On November 29, after the evaluation of the Implementation of the Ankara Protocol in the Progress Report on Turkey, the Commission recommended partial suspension of accession talks. Despite Turkey’s offer on December 7 to open one port and one airport for trade with Greek-administered Cyprus, the EU Foreign Ministers followed the recommendation of the Commission and on December 11, suspended talks on eight of the thirty-five negotiation chapters.

IMPLICATIONS: The decision to slow down Turkey’s accession process was necessary. It risked leading to a mutual ‘train crash’ for both Turkey and the EU. The Cyprus issue was the most easily definable problem and the least dangerous way to legitimize the decision. In fact, in retrospect, Cyprus was not the most important reason for pulling the brakes on the accession talks. Indeed, the EU and Turkey were not ready to fulfill their reciprocal commitments in the accession process. In October 2005, the parties showed their mutual will to further engage with each other; however, will was not sufficient. Developments within the EU and Turkey were not conducive to the advancement of accession negotiations. 

The failure of the French and Dutch referenda in May and June 2005, respectively, dashed expectations for institutional reform in the EU to be realized by November 2006. The EU entered a period of reflection, during which it was left with a limited capacity to sustain ambitious enlargement projects such as Turkey’s accession. Slowing down the process with Turkey meant putting the Turkey issue off the table and focus on the overall enlargement strategy and decision-making in Justice and Home Affairs with a view to the upcoming EU summit. When the reflection period ended in 2007, the priorities of the Finnish and German EU presidencies were the future of Europe, globalization, immigration, Kosovo, labor laws and the EU Internal Market. 

On the other hand, Turkey’s domestic situation was not amenable to push forward significant requirements in the EU accession process. Analyzing the latest reports on the performance of the AKP government regarding the EU process in the past two years, it becomes clear that the government lost its initial enthusiasm towards the EU. Several internal as well as external reasons contributed to this, the major factors being the ideological background of the AKP, the resistance of the opposition and the traditional state establishment to domestic reforms, the perception of double standards on the part of EU countries, as well as the upcoming presidential and general election process in 2007. Another indicator of the AKP’s lack of enthusiasm is the assignment of Ali Babacan, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, as the chief EU negotiator. Mr. Babacan’s daily agenda is occupied with the multitude of foreign policy issues involving everything from the Balkans, the Middle East to Central Asia and the Caucasus. It is natural and inevitable that one official cannot find enough time for both running the country’s foreign relations in general, and at the same time the EU accession process – itself a gargantuan task.

Nevertheless, before the closure case against AKP was opened, the government of Erdogan had displayed some will to accelerate the EU accession process and within this scope, to take some further steps on the Cyprus issue. Sources close to the government suggested that the AKP would assign a new minister, other than Mr. Babacan, to be responsible exclusively for the negotiations with the EU.

Moreover, it was said that an office would be opened in Brussels specifically to intensify negotiations with EU bureaucrats and member state representatives. Parallel to this, there was a change in the policy course about the Cyprus issue. The election of Dimitris Christofias as President of Greek Cyprus provided new hopes for negotiations to be started. 

However, there appears to be little reason for overwhelming optimism. On both sides of the island, there has been no change in the positions of hawkish politicians and institutions. The most prominent hardliners, Mr. Denktas and Mr. Papadopoulos, still retain their influence even though they are not in power any longer. The speech of the Chief of the Turkish General Staff, General Yasar Buyukanıt, during his visit to Cyprus in early April showed that there is no change in the staunch position of the Turkish military. The general notably stated that “Turkish soldiers will remain in their posts until a permanent and just peace is attained”. On the other hand, the closure case seems to be discouraging the AKP from making concessions other than those envisaged in the Annan Plan.

Recent AKP statements indicate that the party leadership is trying to overcome its indignation over the closure case. It seems to have opted for a strategy of introducing a broader democratization package including clauses making it harder to close down political parties. This fulfills another political purpose: by introducing a broader democratization package, long awaited by the EU, the AKP’s efforts to escape closure appear to include stepping up, at least symbolically, EU harmonization efforts – and thereby hoping to attract greater support from Brussels in the domestic balance. One thing is clear: the AKP’s current political strategy and Islamic-oriented policy-line has reached its logical conclusion, forcing the party to change strategy in order to be able to stay in power. A return to pro-European policies appears to be one of the AKP’s most attractive options at present. The EU hence becomes an domestic political issue as well. As the deep state institutions opposing the AKP do not hide their skeptical or even hostile attitude toward the EU, they can be expected to undermine EU harmonization policies should the AKP try to play this in the current domestic confrontation.
Indeed, judging from the AKP’s performance so far in crisis management, optimism regarding an exit strategy is not warranted. As far as Cyprus is concerned, the AKP government’s preoccupation with the internal political confrontation is unlikely to make it able to formulate innovative solutions to the Cyprus problem, even if its rhetoric on the issue could very well point in that direction. Moreover, for a solution to be plausible, the right steps need also to be taken from the Greek side. As it can be expected to seek to utilize the Turkish political crisis to its advantage, this further complicates the negotiations.

CONCLUSIONS: The Cyprus issue remains an important problem that will cause several bottlenecks in the future of Turkey’s EU accession process. However, it is not the standalone issue hindering these talks. It should be recognized that the true reasons for the suspension of accession talks lie in more crucial problems in the area of both Turkish and EU internal affairs. Neither party was ready for the consequences of the process they had initiated. 

In the meantime, the political turmoil in Turkey has a real potential to influence the negotiations on the solution of the Cyprus problem. While there is a slight chance of an AKP return to enthusiastic pro-European policies that would include positive steps on the Cyprus question, it is more likely that Turkey’s internal woes will further postpone real progress on the subject matter.

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.

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