Efforts to reinvigorate Turkey's EU accession won't succeed

By Naz Masraff

The recent move to breathe new life into Turkey's stalled EU accession process is unlikely to have much effect beyond providing Ankara with a minor domestic and international public relations boost. On 17 May, Turkey's EU minister and chief negotiator Egemen Bagis and European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fule launched what they dubbed a positive agenda for EU-Turkish relations. The agenda introduces new mechanisms for communication, including specific working groups, intended to accelerate Turkey's compliance with the acquis communitaire in eight chapters, including two that are blocked for political reasons. But the efforts are insufficient to counter the underlying structural problems impeding Turkey's now long-stalled EU accession.

Turkish authorities have not opened any new chapters of the EU acquis since 2010; talks on 18 of the 34 chapters cannot move ahead because of political issues and open ones cannot be provisionally closed. An important obstacle continues to be Turkey's failure to move on politically difficult reforms needed to bring the country's laws in line with European standards, especially on the judiciary and fundamental rights. Bagis's statements suggesting that Turkey would be in full compliance with the EU acquis by 2014 are largely political rhetoric with little substance.

Cyprus is a huge stumbling block. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has decided not to call a follow-up international conference on Cyprus because there has been no advance since the January talks on the issue. This makes it impossible for the conflict to be resolved before July, when the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) government assumes the EU presidency. Turkey will freeze its relations with the EU presidency for six months in protest, though contacts with the European Commission and the European Parliament will continue.

The RoC's exploration for hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean has exacerbated its contentious relations with Turkey. Turkey claims some areas included in the RoC's new licensing round for further explorations extend onto Turkey's continental shelf, and that any revenues must be shared with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). While the dispute is not likely to escalate into a military conflict, Turkey may continue its gunboat diplomacy, further intensifying tensions. Turkey is now also considering fallback options including pressing other Muslim states to recognize the TRNC.

The new agenda may not result in major advances on EU accession, but it will give the Turkish government some advantages. Ankara can secure public recognition from the EU and boost its domestic popularity even when minor steps are taken. The effort also has bureaucratic advantages, providing another way for both the Turkish Ministry for EU Affairs and the European Commission's Turkey desk, the largest desk operating under the Directorate-General for Enlargement, to justify their existence.

Naz Masraff is an associate with Eurasia Group's Europe Practice.