For practical purposes, Turkey’s European Union accession talks are at a standstill. Worse, there are more and more signs of friction in EU-Turkish relations. It is a state of affairs for which each side bears some responsibility and of which neither should be proud. That Turkish entry into the EU appears to be an ever-receding prospect is unfortunate. But it is no reason to put at risk a long-standing political and economic relationship that remains of great value.
Turkey and the EU have failed this year to open even one new chapter, or policy area, of the 35 that a country must complete before it can join the bloc. Since its membership talks started in 2005, Turkey has opened 13 chapters. Most of the rest are blocked by political disputes between Ankara and EU capitals. By contrast Croatia, which also started its negotiations six years ago, completed all 35 chapters in June and is set to join the EU in 2013.
The paralysis of Turkey’s talks owes much to Austria, Cyprus, France, Germany and others which have never warmed to the idea of Turkish membership. In Cyprus’s case, the EU’s original sin was to admit the divided island in 2004 when the Greek Cypriot-controlled government and its Turkish Cypriot opponents were still far from sealing a comprehensive settlement. This step removed almost all EU leverage over the Greek Cypriots. It has enabled them to obstruct EU business at will and to cock a snook at Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots from the shelter of EU membership.
That said, Ankara’s actions can make it hard for Turkey’s more enthusiastic supporters, such as Sweden and the UK, to argue in favour of intensifying the entry talks. One example is the Turkish threat to freeze ties with the EU in the event that Cyprus assumes the bloc’s six-month rotating presidency next July. Turkey has no right to lecture the EU on who can and cannot hold the presidency. Another disturbing development is Turkey’s threat to apply military pressure to challenge Cypriot and Israeli gas exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean.
It makes no sense for the EU and Turkey to let such tensions get out of control. At more than €100bn a year, bilateral trade is booming. Most EU states are Nato allies of Turkey. Like Turkey, they have a geopolitical interest in promoting freedom and democracy in north Africa and the Middle East. The drift in relations benefits neither the EU nor Turkey, and it is high time for leaders on both sides to reverse it.