ISTANBUL // Amid growing frustration over the slow pace of its negotiations to join the European Union, Turkey has said for the first time that it expects the EU to find a consensus to take the country on board in a little more than three years.
"By January 2014, we will be technically ready for membership," Egemen Bagis, Turkey's EU minister and chief negotiator in membership talks with Brussels, said last week in Istanbul. Starting in 2014, Turkey "will be searching for the consensus" within the EU, he said, in reference to the rule that all 27 EU states have to agree to take on a new member.
In the case of Turkey, chances for that consensus to come about soon are slim, with some EU states, such as France, opposing Ankara's bid openly and membership talks proceeding slowly. But Mr Bagis's statement reflects a growing Turkish impatience with what is seen as European foot-dragging, coupled with the increasing self-confidence of Turkey as a regional power.
Those developments also reflect a tacit acknowledgement by Ankara that full membership may be impossible to achieve. Top officials have stressed that EU membership was second to lifting Turkey to EU standards in areas ranging from human rights to food safety, with the help of the criteria put down by Brussels.
"The process is even more important than the end result," Mr Bagis said.
Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, told the BBC last week that there was no guarantee that Turks would agree to join the union. Turks may not feel the need to become part of the EU, Mr Gul said, adding that Turkish voters might say: "We have completed the reforms. We have raised our standards to EU level. That is enough for us."
A report by the EU on the progress made by Turkey as a candidate country suggests that the day was still a long way off. The report, published last week, said that while Ankara had re-started political reforms, especially with a wide-ranging overhaul of the constitution passed by a referendum in September, there were many problems still to be tackled, among them continuing restrictions of the freedom of speech.
In order to complete its negotiations with Brussels, Turkey has to adopt more than 100,000 pages of EU legislation, known as the acquis communautaire. Membership talks deal with 35 different chapters, ranging from political criteria to economic, social and administrative issues. Since the start of negotiations in 2005, Turkey has opened talks on 13 chapters, but a total of 18 chapters have been blocked by the EU as a whole and by two member states, Cyprus and France, individually, because of the ongoing Cyprus conflict and because of general objections to Turkey's membership bid. With the adoption of a so-called National Programme for the EU in 2007, Turkey vowed to work for the fulfilment of European criteria regardless of the progress made in Brussels. Mr Bagis said that his country was working on implementing EU demands in all chapters, including those where talks are currently blocked. According to the National Programme, Turkey will have imported the EU acquis into its own laws by the end of 2013.
The view that Turkey may be close to fulfilling the technical side of the EU negotiations adds to a growing self-confidence in Ankara, already boosted by an economic boom and a growing political weight of the country in the region. Some politicians in Europe knew by now that "the EU needs Turkey more then Turkey needs the EU", Mr Bagis said. A recent poll showed that support for EU membership in Turkey had dropped to 38 per cent, down from 73 per cent in 2004.
After talks with Turkey's leaders earlier this month, a high-ranking western European politician said the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, was taking a critical look at the question whether the continuation of membership talks made sense at all, given the resistance to Turkey's bid within the EU.
"My impression is that Erdogan wants to decide in the next parliamentary term whether things will go on with the EU nor not," the politician said on condition of anonymity. Turkish voters will elect a new parliament for a five-year term in June. Turkish diplomats have warned EU negotiations could grind to a halt before that because of the unresolved conflict on Cyprus.
But some observers argue that neither the EU nor Turkey would be interested in breaking off the talks. "The overwhelming majority of EU member states still see Turkish accession as a potential boon to Europe," the European Stability Initiative, or ESI, a think tank based in Berlin, Brussels and Istanbul, said in a recent analysis. "The Turkish government still sees the accession process as a boon to Turkey."
ESI noted that Turkey's EU negotiations could only be stopped if Turkey walked away from the table or if EU states decided to suspend the talks. Even given Turkish complaints about an unfair treatment by Europe and the rejection of Turkey's bid in some EU countries, both scenarios appeared unlikely, the study said. "Today's relationship between Turkey and the EU is like a Catholic marriage: divorce is not an option for either side."