ISTANBUL // Turkey's relations with the European Union have never been easy. But they could soon become even tougher. The political climate between Ankara and Brussels is at its worst since Turkey's accession talks began three years ago, and observers said recently that neither side seems eager to reinvigorate the process because powerful interests in both Turkey and Europe are working against swift and smooth membership negotiations.
"It's over," said Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University. Assurances from Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, that political reforms would receive a new boost after local elections in March ring hollow, Mr Aktar said. "No one believes that anymore." After a string of political reforms under the AKP government that came to power in 2002, Turkey formally began accession talks with the European Union in late 2005. With that decision, the state that was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s with the aim of becoming part of Europe, took a big step towards fulfilling its old dream. Turkish government politicians have said their country will be ready to join the EU by 2014.
But progress in membership talks has been painfully slow. So far, Turkey has only managed to open eight of the 33 negotiation chapters that deal with EU standards spanning from political rights to the free movement of capital and food safety. Two new chapters were expected to be opened last week, bringing the number to 10. The unresolved conflict in Cyprus has been an additional strain on the process, as the European Union decided to block eight chapters that concern the Cyprus issue in response to Turkey's refusal to open its ports to ships from the Greek part of the island, the Republic of Cyprus, which has been an EU member since 2004.
Both the European Union and Turkey blame each other for the slow pace of negotiations. The EU has been complaining about "reform fatigue" in Ankara. "Despite its strong political mandate, the government did not put forward a consistent and comprehensive programme of political reforms," the EU said in its latest Progress Report on Turkey, published last month. But Turkish politicians and ordinary citizens have pointed out that key EU members such as France openly oppose Turkey's accession, in effect telling the candidate country that it will never be accepted, no matter how hard it tries. According to a poll by the German Marshall Fund this year, 42 per cent of Turks see EU membership positively, but only 26 per cent believe that their country will actually be a full member one day.
As 2009 dawns, observers say ties between Turkey and the European Union are in for a new strain. "Turkey is entering a critical year, in which its prospects for European Union membership are at make or break stage," the International Crisis Group, a think tank, said in a report last week. The report, titled The Decisive Year Ahead, called on Turkey to "recommit to EU-compliant reforms at the highest executive level", to do more to solve the Cyprus conflict and to introduce a new, more democratic constitution. The European Union should make it clear that Turkey can become a member once it fulfils all the criteria and "takes a greater, more even-handed interest" in the Cyprus issue.
Turkey's foreign minister, Ali Babacan, who also leads his country's EU membership talks, has hinted at a new wave of political reforms after the local elections next March. He expected "new momentum" in the reform process after the elections, which are seen as an important test of popularity for the AKP, Mr Babacan said this month. With EU countries such as France unwilling to consider Turkey's accession and the domestic situation in Turkey unlikely to yield a new reform push soon, relations between Ankara and Brussels could face the breaking point that the ICG refers to or enter a period of stagnation in which both sides do just enough to keep the process alive on paper.
Ironically, it is the Cyprus issue that may provide a way out of the deadlock, Mr Aktar said. "That may open the gate," he said. Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders have been holding talks on a possible reunification of the island with UN assistance for several months. Should they succeed and agree on a deal to reunify the island, Turkey would be able to recognise the new Cypriot state and open its ports, which in turn would enable the EU to unblock the eight negotiation chapters that are on ice.