Turkey goes cold on EU

30th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

With some EU-mandated reforms passed and some stalled, many Turks are increasingly disappointed with the slow pace of their country’s EU drive.

Ankara -- Many Turks wonder whether their country will ever get a chance to join the European Union and experts say they are increasingly disappointed at the slow pace of talks with the EU.

Five years after the EU took in 10 extra members on May 1, 2004, Turkey's own accession talks, which started in 2005, hinge on resolving a trade row with Cyprus and overcoming deep reservations in France, Germany and other members about letting in the mainly Muslim nation.

Cyprus has been divided between ethnic Turkish and Greek sides since 1974. Turkey refuses to open its air and sea ports to the pro-Greek Republic of Cyprus, a country it does not recognise.

That prompted Brussels in 2006 to suspend talks on eight of the 35 policy chapters on joining the EU.

"The Cyprus question is blocking the progress Turkey could make. Without a solution to this problem, we will not see the end of the tunnel," Sinem Akmese of the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) said.

Ankara has vowed to bar Cypriot vessels from its ports unless the EU honours a promise to ease trade restrictions on the breakaway Turkish Republic of Cyprus. Greek Cypriot objections have held up this move.

Now the clock is ticking on an end of 2009 deadline set by the EU for Turkey to meet its obligations.

"We may not see a deadlock, but a freeze in bilateral ties is probable unless the EU gives Turkey one more year" to respect its commitments, said Mehmet Ozcan, director of the Centre for European Union Studies at the Ankara-based think-tank USAK.

Concessions on Cyprus could easily be branded by Turks as a sell-out and would sap dwindling public appetite for the EU bid, which has become something of a national cause.

Turkey is hoping for a breakthrough in UN-led peace talks held between Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot leaders on reunifying their island.

A deal there would allow it to move on the Cyprus row without attracting public ire.

"For the time being Turkey is not ready to move" before results in the Cyprus peace talks, Turkey's chief EU negotiator Egemen Bagis said at a recent press briefing.

Turks are increasingly disappointed with the slow pace of the EU drive, said Ozcan. They felt that the bloc was keeping them hanging on even though Turkey has passed a "great number" of reforms to align itself with the EU, he added.

The latest was the introduction in January of a Kurdish-language channel by Turkey's public broadcaster in response to EU demands to improve minority rights. Until the early 1990s, the Kurdish language was banned in the country.

"Turks have a real problem seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," Ozcan said. "The public is asking itself what they got in return for all these efforts."

Since the launch of membership talks, Turkey has so far only opened 10 of the 35 required chapters.

Its reform programme has been almost at a standstill since 2007, paralysed by political tensions between the Islamist-rooted government and secularist opposition forces, as well as elections.

"Ankara is not going to open the EU door without democratic reform, but discouraging statements from European leaders do not please the Turks," Ozcan said.

France and Germany have been vocal opponents of letting Turkey into the EU.

Despite the problems, US President Barack Obama's strong support for Turkey's EU bid -- voiced at an EU summit in Prague and a visit to Turkey just after -- has created a "dynamism" in favour of Ankara, said one Turkish diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Last week, Turkey announced it had agreed on a roadmap with Armenia to mend ties poisoned by allegations of an Ottoman-era genocide against Armenians.

That could also be a "trump card" for Ankara in its dealings with Brussels, he added.

Burak Akinci/AFP/Expatica

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