No mend in sight for the Turkey-EU estrangement

By Wolfango Piccoli

Later this week, the European Council will press Turkey's government to reconsider its refusal to give Greek Cypriot vessels access to its air and sea ports under a customs union pact with the bloc. While this may cause some tension, Turkey's EU membership talks won't be formally suspended or further complicated by tougher measures. EU leaders are wary about aggravating tension and undermining U.N.-sponsored peace talks between Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities aimed at ending the island's 35-year partition. Plus, there's no need for the EU to take more action against Ankara. The process of accession negotiations has almost completely lost its momentum, and it certainly won't get a jumpstart in 2010, given the adverse political circumstances prevailing in both Turkey and the EU. If the prevailing mutual disinterest between Turkey and the EU persists, Ankara's accession talks will inevitably run to a halt, raising the risk of a more definite split between Turkey and the EU next year.

The key issue for Turkey's EU bid is Cyprus, on which negotiations began in September 2008, but little progress has been made. If a settlement isn't reached by spring 2010, it could bring a total breakdown in Turkey-EU talks. While it's hard to trace a sense of urgency on the Greek Cypriot side, the April 2010 presidential elections in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus are generally regarded as an informal deadline for the reunification talks. Without a settlement, the present incumbent, Mehmet Ali Talat, may lose his seat in April and be replaced by a president who is less supportive of a settlement, which would further complicate the already thorny negotiations. Meanwhile, as long as the EU's commitment to accept Turkey remains ambiguous, it is difficult to see how Ankara could accept a settlement concerning the divided island.

Within Turkey, accession to the EU is not a priority for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) leaders, who are far more focused on their policy of expanding Turkey's foreign policy drive beyond Europe and its traditional western allies to the Middle East, Russia, and the Caucasus. This pursuit is aimed at establishing Turkey as a regional player, building on the country's location, Ottoman past, and greater economic power. But this foreign policy course has minimal implications for Turkey's EU aspirations.

Turkish government and AKP officials seem to share the belief that by casting Turkey as an aspiring powerbroker in its neighborhood, the country will obtain stronger leverage in its membership negotiations with the EU. Such a belief is deeply flawed as the EU will not cut Turkey any slack on reforms because of its strategic importance as a potential energy transit route and its growing diplomatic clout in its neighborhood. To make things worse, the EU is not seen any longer by the AKP leadership as a vote-winning card because the Turkish public has lost faith in the positive outcome of the accession talks.

Certain EU member states (notably France and Austria) can be equally blamed as they have undermined the EU's credibility by sending negative messages concerning the final outcome of the accession talks and by creating new obstacles that do not allow for the opening of various policy chapters. The acceptance by the other EU member states of these impositions (which are in violation of the EU's framework for negotiations with Turkey of October 2005) has exacerbated the damage. As a result, the EU has lost much of its leverage vis-à-vis Turkey, harming the functioning of the interplay of EU conditionality-Turkey compliance. Given the inability of the EU's 27 governments to reach a common position on Turkey, it is difficult to foresee how the EU could bring greater credibility to its formally existing commitment for Turkey's accession in case of successful completion of negotiations.

Unless Turkey's accession process receives an unexpected boost from the ongoing Cyprus negotiations, the AKP or the EU probably won't take any major step to re-galvanize Ankara's bid for membership. At the moment, both sides appear more concerned with keeping the process alive than moving it forward. In the longer run, the mutual estrangement between Turkey and the EU is set to send Turkey's EU bid into a slow death spiral, raising the risk of a more definitive split between the two sides.

Wolfango Piccoli is an analyst at Eurasia Group.