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Media Watch 2010

05 October 2010
Source: Guardian comment
Author: Robert Ellis
Turkey's EU accession: the Norwegian solution
The chief EU negotiator for Turkey has put forward a proposal to ease member states' concerns – but there are strings attached.

Since 2005, Turkey's accession talks with the EU have been in the doldrums, and the domestic reforms that have been posited have mostly been concerned with shoring up the AKP government's power.

The Cyprus issue is a major stumbling block, and since 2006 the EU council has frozen eight of the 35 policy chapters (which all candidates for EU membership must successfully negotiate) because of Turkey's refusal to implement its commitment to open its ports and airspace to Greek Cypriot shipping and aircraft. Four more chapters have been blocked by France, and Cyprus has blocked six, including the energy chapter.

In an attempt to unclog the accession process, Turkey's chief EU negotiator, Egemen Bagis, last week put forward a proposal that may ease concerns in a number of EU states about the prospect of Turkish membership.

Last year Turkey's president, Abdullah Gül, stated in a speech in Azerbaijan: "The important thing is not to enter the union but to adopt its rules." According to Gül, when Turkey reaches EU standards it may – like Norway – choose not to join.

Bagis proposed that when Turkey has completed the accession process, whenever that may be, both the EU member states and Turkey should hold referendums on Turkish membership. The word "referendum" is calculated to strike fear into the hearts of the EU's directoire, but the idea does have its merits.

However, there are strings attached to the Turkish proposal. As Bagis has explained: "In order to complete the negotiations, we have to open the chapters of the negotiations."

There's the rub, because the first blocked chapter Turkey has in mind is the energy chapter. Just in case we miss the point, Bagis referred to the Nabucco gas project: "If I cannot open the energy chapter, I'm not really motivated to solve [Europe's] energy problems."

Push has obviously come to shove, and Bagis has put a gun to Europe's head and demanded a settlement to the Cyprus question. When Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, refused to recognise Cyprus at the EU summit in December 2004, Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, declared: "We were gobsmacked," and added: "We are not carpet traders here in Europe."

But he has met his match in Bagis. When Turkish warships harassed research vessels exploring for hydrocarbons off southern Cyprus, Cyprus accused Turkey of "behaving like the classroom bully" and blocked the opening of the energy chapter. Bagis responded by claiming that "a small sunshine member-state obstructs the opening of the certain chapter [energy] against the needs of 500m European citizens".

As Turkey is well aware, Cyprus constitutes the main obstacle to accession. As Bagis unsubtly put it: "Put yourself in the shoes of a Cypriot. A country of 600,000, looking up at a country of 70m, with the largest military in Europe, the sixth largest economy of Europe, the third largest, fastest-growing economy in the world."

Nevertheless, Turkey is guilty of doublespeak, as it constantly talks of two separate states and two fully functioning democracies, while formally adhering to the UN criteria for a federal partnership.

Elmar Brok, a leading German MEP and member of the foreign affairs committee, has also proposed that Turkey should, like Norway, seek to become a fully associated member of the internal market and the Schengen border-free area.

The latter proposal is unrealistic, as Turkey plans to create a Middle Eastern free trade zone together with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, which would involve visa-free travel. This has, in effect, already been implemented, as well as for other countries in the Caucasus and the Middle East, so that Turkey would constitute a back door to Europe.

Be that as it may, once the hurdles of accession have been been overcome, Turkey's proposal for a referendum offers a solution to the thorny question of whether the outcome should be partnership or political union.

[Robert Ellis is an adviser to the Turkey Assessment Group in the European Parliament]