A Turkey of a report

By bne IntelliNews November 3, 2006

Nicholas Birch in Istanbul -

A negative progress report and stalemate over the Cyprus ports issue points to trouble at December's European Council meet, which will decide how to continue Turkey's accession talks.

Fears of a “train crash” in Turkey’s struggling EU accession bid grew this week when efforts to reach a compromise on Cyprus fell through, providing yet another black mark to an already negative report due out next week.

Leaked last week, the European Commission’s November 8 progress report only really differs from last year’s version in being much shorter. There are the same criticisms over human rights abuses, limitations to freedom of speech and religion, and the excessive political influence of the military.

The report will now go before the December 14 meeting of the European Council, which will decide over how to proceed with talks over Turkey's bid to join the organisation.

For supporters of Turkey’s increasingly troubled accession process, it’s the sense of deja-vu that’s the basic problem. Ankara started formal accession negotiations lastyear after a three-year flurry of the most radical reforms in this country’s 83-year history.

Since then, though, other than the cancellation of legislation allowing civilians to be tried by military courts, nothing has been done to bring Turkey closer in line with the Copenhagen criteria.

A major reform package that would strengthen civilian auditing of military spending and lift restrictions on the education and property rights of non-Muslim Turks was due to become law well before next week’s report. Instead, it sits festering before parliament, seven months after the government announced it.

It’s not just the delay that concerns Ismet Berkan, pro-European editor of the liberal daily Radikal. The draft will not satisfy the European Union," he says. "Worse, the drafters know that only too well."

In the short term, though, it’s the deadlock over Cyprus that really jeopardises the future of Turkey’s membership talks.

Stuck in port

Ankara agreed in December 2004 to open its ports to Cypriot ships and planes before the end of this year. It still hasn’t, in large part because Brussels – blocked by the Greek Cypriot administration – has not taken steps to end its embargo on the northern Cypriot Turkish administration, recognised only by Turkey.

With Cyprus warning that it will call for Turkey’s entry bid to be frozen at the summit of EU leaders in December, Finland, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, is scrambling desperately to find a compromise.

Turkey should open a few of its ports and the TRNC give a strip of coast back to the Greeks, it suggests. In return, the EU will take control of the TRNC-controlled port of Famagusta to allow free passage of shipping in and out.

“This isn’t an attempt to solve the Cyprus problem,” says Erdal Guven, a Turkish foreign policy expert. “Cyprus here is the bait, and the big fish is Turkish-EU relations.”

The high-level meeting between Turkey and Cyprus that Finland was hoping to host this Sunday is now off, and although diplomacy continues it’s far from clear that the fish will bite.

Safe within the EU, the Greek Cypriots remain hawkish. TRNC president Mehmet Ali Talat has repeatedly said he refuses to be served up “as an hors-d’oeuvre for Turkey’s accession.” And in Brussels Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said Turkey would be hard-pressed to make further concessions over Cyprus with elections due next year.

Because of the sensitivity of the Cyprus issue, the draft report leaked last week left the conclusions and recommendations section blank. But failure to find a compromise before publication leaves the European Commission with the unenviable job of suggesting a European response to Turkish obstinacy.

That’s something it has always been keen to avoid doing. In Turkey, where the vast majority of people think Turkey is more sinned against than sinning on Cyprus, criticism on the issue is only likely to deepen anti-European feeling that began to surge the moment accession proceedings were formalised.

Flagging support

Around 70% barely a year ago, Turkish public support for joining the EU has slumped to under 50%, according to recent surveys. And while parties in the 2002 elections vied with each other to be the most pro-European, next year’s polls look set to be dominated by nationalist feeling stoked by growing opposition to Turkey’s accession within Europe.

Justice Minister Cemil Cicek is already warming up. Asked whether the government was planning to comply with Brussels’ demands that it scrap a notorious insult law used to prosecute dozens of writers this year, his response was sarcasm.

“As soon as anybody’s affected by [article] 301, there’s always one Western country there to hand over an award," he said, referring to this year’s Nobel prize-winner novelist Orhan Pamuk, who was acquitted of insulting “Turkishness” last year.

The atmosphere of bitterness has even begun to affect Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister and consummate pragmatist. Faced with warnings of an upcoming “train crash” in negotiations, his favourite response recently has been a contemptuous shrug. “We’ll replace the Copenhagen criteria with Ankara criteria, and carry on going," he says.

In such a climate, it is easy to be pessimistic. A well-known political commentator, Cengiz Candar isn’t, for two reasons. First, he says, neither the European Commission nor Turkey want that train crash to happen. Second, the growing chaos in the Middle East makes it impossible for Brussels to turn its back on Ankara now.

In an interview this week with the French daily Liberation, EU Commissioner for Enlargement Olli Rehn talked more darkly of the “negative spiral” born of European dissatisfaction with slow Turkish reform and Turkish anger at the hostility of European public opinion.

"It is a real vicious circle that I want to break, but which it will be difficult to break if accession negotiations are suspended," he said.

To suspend or not to suspend: the question remains very much in the balance.

Send comments to Nicholas Birch

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