ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Turkey-EU Relations Take a Nosedive

European fears of unemployed Turkish youth swamping the continent on the one hand, and the hysteria of Turkish ultra-nationalists on the other are not helping the negotiations between the European Union and Turkey on the latter's full membership of the former. However, there is hope, as talks have not come to a complete standstill.

In both Turkey and the EU, it appears to be the nationalists who are doing rather

Turkey-EU Relations

well out of the ongoing dispute, while genuine democrats and supporters of a secular, multicultural Europe on both sides

Take a Nosedive

have ended up on the side-lines. How did

European fears of unemployed Turkish youth swamping the continent on the one hand, and the hysteria of Turkish ultra-nationalists on the other are not helping the negotiations between the European Union and Turkey on the latter’s full membership of the former. However, there is hope, as talks have not come to a complete standstill.


hile the US and Europe continue to tie themselves in destabilising and disastrous foreign policy knots over Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and other crises in west Asia, the European Union (EU) has sent its relations with Turkey into a nosedive.

Just 15 months after the EU opened full membership negotiations with Turkey, their relationship has hit a new low. At their December summit, the EU’s leaders partially suspended the talks, apparently in a spat over the divided island of Cyprus. Given the wider geopolitical context, not least the destabilising effects of the USinspired “war on terror”, but also tense relations with Russia over energy supplies, this looks like a spectacular self-goal on the EU’s part. Was it deliberate or was it a mistake?

Conspiracy or Error?

There are plenty of competing explanations for the prevailing state of affairs. Is it, as some argue, “Christian Europe” rejecting Muslim – and “Asian” – Turkey? Or is it France, refusing to countenance having two member-states larger than itself in the EU? Or is it just EU political errors, not least the decision, now regretted by many, of letting the divided island of Cyprus join in 2004?

There is some truth in all these explanations. And the broader context is relevant too. The clash with Turkey is in part a sideeffect of a wider political and public backlash against the EU’s rapid expansion from 15 members only three years ago to 27 members today.

And perhaps it is not all Europe’s fault. Turkey did say it would open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot vessels, but then never did (the proximate cause of the partial suspension of talks), saying the EU must first keep its promise to end the Turkish Cypriots’ isolation in the north of the island. The EU, remarkably, claims the two commitments are not connected – and that Turkey’s was a legal commitment while that of the EU was political.

Paying the Price

The potential costs of a major falling out with Turkey are large. Turkey borders Iraq, Iran, Syria, Armenia and Georgia in the east, the Black Sea – looking across to Ukraine and Russia to the north, Greece and Bulgaria in the west, and its long Mediterranean coast-line to the south looking towards Cyprus and on to northern Africa. In the cold war, Turkey was a vital flank of NATO. Today it offers alternative energy routes from central Asia to Europe avoiding Russia. It is also a transit route for illegal immigrants, human trafficking, drugs, weapons, terrorists – all topping the list of EU concerns and all areas of attempted EU-Turkey cooperation. And it is a large, Muslim-population country that is both democratic and secular – surely a western ideal. Yet the EU has allowed relations to sink to this current new low.

The mainstream EU view seems to be that it has managed its dispute with Turkey rather well – negotiations did not come to a complete stop in December (commentators had warned of a “train crash” if talks failed) but nor did they carry on as normal. To penalise Turkey for not opening its ports to Greek Cyprus some key parts of the negotiations have been suspended, with others in theory now able to go ahead.

How Did It Get This Bad?

But this rather bureaucratic, self-satisfied view is not shared in Turkey. And it also papers over deep divisions in the Union.

this happen and what are the prospects for recovering the situation?

The short answer is Cyprus – the small Mediterranean island (population under a million) near the Syrian coast – beset by violent conflict between the Turkish-Cypriot and Greek-Cypriot communities in the 1960s and invaded by Turkey in 1974, after a short-lived coup on the Greek-Cypriot side. Since 1974, the UN has patrolled the “green line” that divides the northern Turkish-Cypriot side (home to 40,000 Turkish troops) from the southern Greek-Cypriot side. The international community recognises the Greek-Cypriot-led Republic of Cyprus, while only Turkey recognises the Turkish Cypriot statelet in the north. This divided island is now a full EU member. But why did the EU even start negotiations with Turkey in 2005, when Turkey did not recognise the Republic of Cyprus? It is because in 2004 Turkey had suddenly become the good guys on Cyprus.

In twin referenda on a UN peace plan to reunite the island in April 2004, the Turkish Cypriots voted “yes” to reunification, the Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly voted “no” with the encouragement of their president, Tassos Papadopoulos. Turkey had suddenly become the EU’s golden boy while the Greek Cypriots had lost the moral high-ground. The UN and EU proclaimed that the isolation of northern Cyprus must end. And the EU went on by the end of 2004 to agree that it would open negotiations with Turkey, the only EU concession to the Greek Cypriots being that Turkey must at least open its ports to them. It is this latter Achilles heel, the ports deal, that led to the current partial suspension of talks.

Is Cyprus Just an Excuse?

But like so many EU political stories, Cyprus has been used by some as an excuse, notably in Austria and France, and many of Germany’s Christian Democrats among others, who regretted the decision to open talks with Turkey at all. Although France and Germany originally backed talks with Turkey seeing it as of strategic importance, at the end of 2004, the decision was controversial. French presidential candidate

Economic and Political Weekly January 27, 2007

Nicolas Sarkozy has publicly made clear his opposition to Turkish membership and his preference for a so-called “privileged partnership”, as did the then Austrian chancellor Schuessel despite his signing the deal to open talks. German chancellor Angela Merkel has so far stuck to the membership talks deal but is known to be personally opposed. And polls show much of the European public is, for now, against the idea too.

The causes of opposition are many – from the specificity of the Greek Cypriots’ decades-old dispute with Turkey to widespread xenophobia and Islamophobia. But on top of these attitudes, came fears about Turkey’s size – poor and big. Would not more migrants arrive, ask some populist politicians, ignoring the fact that Turkey’s young population might be just what ageing Europe needs.

And the European political mood was any way darkening further in 2005. The twin French and Dutch “No’s” to the EU’s draft constitution in referenda in summer 2005, unleashed an ongoing period of crisis, limbo and loss of political confidence across the EU as a whole. In addition, disputes with Russia suddenly raised new worries about energy security, and the ongoing disaster of the invasion of Iraq underpinned uneasy EU relations with the US. The EU’s sense of itself as a prosperous, secure, democratic, secular and multicultural political organisation dwindled dramatically.

Turkey’s Politics Not Helping

And just as hostility to Turkey hardened in the EU, Turkey’s political climate started to change too. Secular Turkey had surprised itself, and the outside world, by electing a moderate Islamic party at the end of 2002 – the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Over the next two years, under the canny leadership of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an intense political and economic reform drive took off. This reform drive temporarily united an unlikely set of political forces in Turkey – from the AKP to opposition, secularist social democrats, business people, even modernisers in the army – and unleashed change and debate with a speed that astounded many. Political reforms addressed, among other areas, the unequal position of women, freedom of speech, the political powers of the military and Turkey’s unenviable record and reputation for torture and ill-treatment.

But barely had Turkey reached the goal of EU membership talks than the mood soured. The failure to open ports to the Greek Cypriots grated on many. And French, Austrian and other negative statements against Turkey, fuelled long-held doubts that Turkey would never be accepted – the permanent “other”.

And so, in 2005 and 2006, Turkey’s own pro-EU, pro-reform consensus started to dissolve. The 2007 elections loomed, conflict in Turkey’s Kurdish south-east flared again, after the end of a ceasefire in 2004, and anti-EU nationalists saw their moment. A gang of nationalist lawyers started taking a series of high profile – and for Turkey deeply embarrassing – cases to court in attempts to prosecute leading writers, academics, journalists and novelists, among them Nobel-prize winning author Orhan Pamuk, for insulting “Turkishness”. The EU demanded reforms to the law to stop such cases, but the Turkish government hesitated, caught between nationalists and the EU, with elections round the corner. In a grim worsening of the situation, Turkish-Armenian journalist and writer Hrant Dink, convicted last year of insulting Turkishness, was shot dead on January 19.

Meanwhile, opposition by some nationalists and secularists to Erdogan increased as some worried that he might (and may) stand for president in May 2007 – unthinkable for extreme right-wing nationalists and secularists as his wife wears an Islamic headscarf. Even the opposition socialdemocrats became much more sceptical on the EU as they sought electoral advantage (full parliamentary elections are due in November 2007). Public support for the EU – previously at around 70 per cent – started to fall through the floor, down to close to 30 per cent in some polls.

In the face of such a grim political climate, Erdogan insisted he would oppose the EU on Cyprus. And so, with nationalists and pessimists clamouring on both sides, Turkey-EU relations nosedived at the end of 2006. A sorry tale, with politicians on both sides, who should have fought against the nationalist rhetoric, in most cases failing to rise to the moment.

What Next?

There is, despite all, an optimistic scenario. If the EU and Turkey continue membership talks in some areas in 2007, they could start to patch things up. And the EU might act to end northern Cyprus’ trade isolation. Once Turkey has had its presidential and parliamentary elections in 2007, reforms may pick up speed and the pro-EU mood return. A virtuous circle restored.

But the pessimistic retort is to say that membership talks will remain bedevilled in all areas by the unresolved Cyprus conflict. Meanwhile, Turkey’s electoral outcome is unclear – it could produce an unwieldy coalition, rather than the single party government in power at present, dimming reform hopes. And if Sarkozy wins the French presidential election, his opposition to Turkey could upset the apple cart even further.

The European argument over Turkey is not going to go away soon. Perhaps the most positive light on the horizon is the Turkish government’s announcement in mid-January 2007 that it would carry on with all reforms necessary to join the EU as fast as possible, including in those areas currently suspended. Just as UK’s then prime minister, Harold Wilson, announced in the 1960s that he would not take (the French) “no” to British membership for an answer, it seems that Turkey may be doing the same. If so, it is an intelligent and challenging approach, and one that the EU will have to think twice about before rebuffing.



For the Attention of Subscribers and SubscriptionAgencies Outside India

It has come to our notice that a large number of subscriptions to the EPW from outside the country together with the subscription payments sent to supposed subscription agents in India have not been forwarded to us.

We wish to point out to subscribers and subscription agencies outside India that all foreign subscriptions, together with the appropriate remittances, must be forwarded to us and not to unauthorised third parties in India.

We take no responsibility whatsoever in respect of subscriptions not registered with us.


Economic and Political Weekly January 27, 2007

Dear reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top