After a year of setbacks, Turkey's bid for EU membership may start moving forward again. Leading Turkish politicians have thrown their weight behind accession, and elections in Cyprus and domestic reforms could help ease current blockages.
Foreign Minister Ali Babacan told local press on February 5 that Turkey remains committed to accession, despite opposition from some member states, and other government officials seem to agree. In the wake of the government's decision to lift the ban on women wearing headscarves in public universities, parliamentary speaker Koksal Toptan moved swiftly to quash claims that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is shifting its focus from Europe.
"Turkey cannot turn back from the point we have reached in regard to civilisation, modernisation and Westernisation," Toptan, an AKP moderate, said. "There will be no change here. Turkey cannot give up on its target of membership of the European Union, which is part of its Westernisation and modernisation process," he added.
Turkey has been an EU associate member since the 1960s, but commenced accession negotiations only in 2005. The country must complete 35 "chapters" of reform and integration in order to be fully eligible for membership of the EU. However, eight of these chapters were suspended in December 2006 due to Turkey's refusal to allow ships and aircraft registered in the Republic of Cyprus (effectively the ethnic Greek southern half of the island) into its ports and airports. The chapters are to date still suspended and remain a serious barrier to progress.
The slow pace of concrete steps towards accession, as well as the attitude of some European politicians towards Turkish membership, have been blamed for a decrease in the proportion of Turks who want the country to join. According to a Eurobarometer poll in December, only 53% now support membership, down from 62% in spring 2007.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is publicly opposed to Turkish membership of the EU and campaigned as such. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has spoken out against Turkey joining the Union in the past, although she has been more moderate.
Nonetheless, recent developments mean that the wheels may indeed start to move again this year. On February 17, Tassos Papadopoulos, president of the Republic of Cyprus and a staunch opponent of reunification of the island and Turkey's interests in the EU, failed in his re-election attempt. Both of his rivals, Demetris Christofias and Ioannis Kasoulides, who will advance to the second round on February 24 are seen as more likely to recommence negotiations with the Turkish north of the island, and with the Ankara government itself. This may be key to unfreezing the eight suspended chapters.
On February 20, Turkey passed the "Foundations Law", allowing non-Muslim religious foundations to accept funding from abroad and returning to them property previously confiscated by the state. In 1974, at the time of Turkey's invasion of Northern Cyprus, land belonging to Christian and Jewish community organisations was seized. The EU has been lobbying for the return of the property, which includes schools, orphanages and churches, for some years now, as part of its push to encourage Turkey to respect minority rights.
While the EU welcomed the ratification of the law, it indicated that Turkey would be judged by action on the ground. Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said the legislation was "important to ensure fundamental rights and freedoms for all Turkish citizens", but added "its implementation will be the test of Turkey's progress in ensuring rights and freedoms".
On February 18, EU foreign ministers approved a revised list of priorities for Turkey in its bid for EU accession, highlighting the reinforcement of the "rights and freedoms". The government is now considering amendments to the controversial Article 301 of the constitution, which forbids insulting "Turkishness" and has been used to prosecute various writers and journalists.