The Winding Road

Turkey

Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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The close vote in Germany's recent national elections came as short-term relief for the Turkish government, at a time when its bid to take the country into the EU looked to be in increasing difficulty.



With frustrations simmering in both Ankara and Brussels over Turkey's refusal to formally recognise Cyprus, which party assumes the reigns of power in each of Europe's member states has a great significance in determining Turkey's path to Brussels.



Good news for Ankara then that Angela Merkel, an advocate of a "privileged partnership" between the EU and Turkey, rather than Turkish membership, came out with only a marginal lead over her chief rival, Germany's present chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder. His party is more closely committed to Turkey joining.



Whilst Merkel's conservatives - the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) alliance - won 35.8% of the vote, a figure well below expectations, Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SPD) successfully mustered 33.7%. With Schroeder once again throwing down the gauntlet in a bid for power, Ankara's hopes of an SPD-led government that supports Turkey's EU aspirations could yet be realised.



Still, concerted negotiations between Germany's parties have left analysts guessing as to the final make-up of the government. A grand coalition between the conservatives and social democrats should not be altogether dismissed despite resistance from Schroeder, bent as he is on retaining the top seat as chancellor. In any case, Turkish politicians and businessmen would agree that a coalition between the social democrats and conservatives is better than a government dominated by the CDU/CSU.



Nevertheless, Ankara still has to worry about the rest of Europe, even if Schroeder finds himself back in power. President Jacques Chirac of France is ailing, and as a cautious advocate of Turkish accession to the EU, does not see eye to eye on the issue with other members of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). The rise of UMP head Nicolas Sarkozy as a presidential hopeful - and his rejection of full-fledged EU membership for Turkey - is particularly troublesome for Ankara.



Under pressure from both within the UMP and outside it, Chirac promised to hold a local referendum on Turkish accession to the EU - a move designed to endow the electorate with a sense of decision-making on the issue (even though the status of such a vote is highly doubtful), whilst buying time to make a stronger case for Turkish accession.



Ankara can draw little comfort from this move, however. A poll conducted by the German Marshall Fund in June placed public support for Turkish accession at 11% in France and 22% across the EU. This nevertheless was after a negative vote in the Netherlands and France on whether to adopt the EU constitution, with confidence in Brussels already tattered.



Maintaining a steady resolve is unlikely to become any easier for Ankara either as the UK hands over the rotating presidency of Europe to Austria at the start of next year. While London has been Ankara's strongest pro-membership advocate, Vienna has backed Merkel's "privileged partnership" proposal, an alternative to full-fledged membership that is nothing short of an insult for the Turks - a fact that Ankara has more than made clear. The sole goal of accession talks is, after all, supposed to be membership of the EU.



But the most divisive issue has of late been Cyprus. After being obliged at last December's EU summit to extend its customs union with the EU to include all the new member states - including the Greek Cypriot-dominated government in Nicosia - Ankara finally did so in July. However, it also simultaneously issued a declaration that it was also not recognising the Cyprus government. Turkey's ports and airports also remained closed to Cypriot registered vessels and planes.



President Chirac then raised Turkish hackles after suggesting that such intransigence was not "in the spirit" of a country trying to join the EU. Nevertheless, whilst France and Cyprus argued that recognition of the Greek Cypriot administration should occur prior to the opening of accession negotiations in October, the EU Commission begged to differ. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn insisted that no new conditions could be imposed on Turkey as Ankara had already qualified for talks by extending its customs union to all new EU members, including Cyprus.



Brussels however did demand that Turkey open it ports and airports to Cypriot ships and planes. Not complying would slow the pace of membership talks accordingly. In addition, a statement released by EU president Britain in the beginning of September noted that, "It became clear that most member states agreed with the presidency that there was a need for a counter declaration."



Meanwhile, the Turkish government was fuming. "If [the EU] present new conditions, we will turn our back and leave," Turkish Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Gul told the Economist magazine in early September, in reference to the demand that Turkey recognise the Republic of Cyprus.



However, after weeks of hard bargaining, the statement eventually agreed by EU leaders on Turkey's accession and the Cyprus issue was reportedly something of a victory for the British position, as it effectively left Turkey's recognition of Cyprus to a future, unspecified date before the end of the accession talks. At the same time, Turkey was urged to open its ports to the Cypriots "as soon as possible" and as part of a "normalisation process".



Yet the day following press reports of this agreement, on September 20, the Greek Cypriots appeared to muddy the waters, with President Tassos Papadopoulos suggesting the issue would be reviewed in 2006.



However, it is not just in the international arena that Turkey's accession process is under strain before it has even begun.



A rise in demonstrations and violent incidents involving nationalists and ethnic Kurdish separatist sympathisers has led to hundreds of arrest across the country in recent weeks. Caving in to pressure from EU member states could provide opponents to the regime with further ammunition to discredit the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), while failure to implement reforms will likely further fuel Kurdish ethnic separatism.



This dilemma manifests itself in some damaging ways. One recent example being the court case against internationally renowned Turkish author Orhan Pamuk for publicly denigrating the Turkish identity after commenting on the Armenian issue to a Swiss newspaper back in February. The case has been duly noted in Europe and is not the type of publicity that Turkey needs as the start of EU talks on October 3 approaches. The number of pitfalls and obstacles that Ankara will have to negotiate over the coming months will be challenging enough without providing opponents with more grounds to reject Turkey's accession bid.

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