x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The right's success hits Turkey's EU ambitions

Centre-right parties that do not regard Turkey joining the EU favourably now have upper hand in the European Parliament.

ISTANBUL // Prospects for Turkish accession to the European Union suffered another blow yesterday as EU parliamentary elections strengthened parties opposed to Turkey's entry into the club, observers say, just as new storm clouds gather for Turkey's already troubled membership negotiations with the EU. "Bad news for Turkey," the Turkish news website Gazeteport said in a headline yesterday. "Centre-Right parties that do not regard Turkey's EU membership favourably have the upper hand in the European parliament."

Zaman, a newspaper, commented that leftist parties in Europe, which are traditionally more supportive of Turkey's membership bid than conservative groups, had suffered heavy losses in the poll, which ended on Sunday. "Meanwhile, rightist parties that oppose Turkish membership in France and Germany, the two leading EU countries, emerged as winners." Although the EU elections were more about the fallout of the global economic crisis, and not about the controversial issue of Turkey's membership, the outcome could make it more difficult for Ankara to find supporters for its cause in the European Union.

"The fact is that the [European] right wing is more against membership" of Turkey than parties left of the political divide, Erdal Kabatepe, a former chairman of the Association for Turkish-EU Relations, a Turkish lobby group supporting Ankara's EU application, said in an interview yesterday. "The result could be more opposition" to Turkey's bid, Mr Kabatepe said. "As if there wasn't enough opposition already."

In a further sign of gloom on the Turkish-European front, Mr Kabatepe's association, one of the few groups that worked to raise Turkish enthusiasm about the European process, recently took the decision to dissolve itself because it considered the membership bid a lost cause. "There is nothing to do. There is no role for us," Mr Kabatepe said. Even before the vote there were signs that tensions between Turkey and Europe were rising. Statements by Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, who both confirmed their rejection of a Turkish EU membership during the election campaign, triggered a written answer by the Turkish foreign ministry last week.

Both Mr Sarkozy and Mrs Merkel favour an agreement between Europe and Turkey that stays well below the threshold of full membership for Ankara. "Various political parties and figures have made null and void proposals such as a 'Common European Economic and Security Area' or a 'privileged partnership' as alternatives to full membership," the ministry said, without mentioning Mr Sarkozy and Mrs Merkel by name.

"Turkey rejects these statements, which cannot be considered to have been made in good faith," the ministry added. "It is inconceivable for Turkey to accept that the accession negotiations should be conducted to achieve any special status." Turkey's membership negotiations started in late 2005 and have proceeded slowly since then. So far, Turkish negotiators and their EU counterparts have covered 10 out of 35 areas, or "chapters", of the negotiations. Meanwhile, Croatia, which started its own EU negotiations at the same time as Turkey, hopes to become an EU member in two or three years.

Even the slow pace of Turkey's negotiation process is now under threat. Given that eight negotiation chapters have been frozen because of a dispute over the divided island of Cyprus, other chapters are being blocked by France, which is opposed to Turkish membership, and yet others cannot be addressed because Turkey has not completed the necessary preparations, negotiators could run out of subjects to discuss by the end of the year. The result would be a de-facto stop to the opening of new negotiation chapters.

"This year is a crucial time" for Turkey's membership negotiations, a western diplomat based in Turkey said. "The big question will be how both sides deal with this." "Things with the EU are not going well," Murat Yetkin, a columnist of the Radikal newspaper, wrote yesterday. On the one hand, there was hardly any support for Turkey within Europe, he wrote. On the other hand, Turkey was sending conflicting messages and dragging its feet on important reform issues.

Olli Rehn, the EU enlargement commissioner, speaking to Reuters last week, cited a project to reform Turkey's trade union laws, which the EU has been demanding for years. Although the EU had been promised by Ankara twice this year that the bill would be passed soon, there is no sign of it, Mr Rehn said. The labour reform is a condition for the opening of talks about social policy and employment, one of the chapters in the negotiation process.

Mr Kabatepe and other critics of the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, say that the standstill of reforms is the result of Ankara's unwillingness to tackle thorny issues to make headway with the EU process. "The government has seen that it doesn't hurt them too much" at the polls if work on the EU is put on the backburner, Mr Kabatepe said. As for the negotiation process, "it has stopped already", he said. "There is no attempt from the Turkish side, no action to make a move."

Mr Kabatepe said he thinks Mr Erdogan is more interested with his popularity in the Middle East, which received a boost this year when the Turkish prime minister walked out of a panel discussion with Israel's president, Shimon Peres. "My worry is that Turkey is being pushed to the Arab world," Mr Kabatepe said. tseibert@thenational.ae