|EU expert says clear-cut accession date key for Turkey
European Union expert Can Baydarol says Turkey needs to pressure the EU to obtain an unequivocal accession date for full membership, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a historic visit to Brussels on Jan. 19 to revive the country's EU accession bid.
Baydarol, who also teaches EU affairs at İstanbul's Kültür University, said revitalization projects would not mean much to the Turkish public, which has lost its trust in the EU because of ambiguity over Turkey's membership.
On several occasions in Brussels, Erdoğan declared that he was recommitting his government to an intensive reform process in 2009. He was accompanied by Egemen Bağış, Turkey's first full-time EU negotiator, whose appointment earlier this month was seen as a sign that Ankara might be willing to push long-delayed reforms. So far, Turkey has opened talks on 10 out of the 35 negotiation chapters, of which it has provisionally completed just one.
The EU has frozen eight chapters in Turkey's accession talks because of Ankara's refusal to open its ports and airports to EU member Greek Cyprus. Turkey has said it will not do this until the EU takes steps to end the Turkish Cypriot community's economic isolation. But the EU has threatened to suspend accession talks if it is not done by mid-December.
Baydarol stressed that the Cyprus issue would be a good excuse to break Turkey-EU relations but that the issue "cannot be solved without Turkey."
"Having the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus [KKTC] accepted into the EU would solve the problem together with giving a full membership guarantee to Turkey," he said.
Baydarol elaborated on the issue for Monday Talk.
Can Baydarol, expert in European Union affairs and EU membership activist
Europe Without Borders coordinator for the Turkish International Transporters Association, he teaches European Union affairs at Kültür University in İstanbul. One of the founding members of the Turkey-EU Foundation (TAV), established in 2004, he served as a researcher for several institutions on European law, Turkish-European relations and the harmonization of the Turkish system with EU law. He has appeared on many television and radio programs on Turkey-EU relations and writes a column for the Finansal Forum newspaper. Among his books are "Medeniyetler Buluştuğunda" (When Civilizations Meet), 2004, and "AB ile Tam Üyelik Yolunda Avrupa Topluluğu ile Gümrük Birliği" (Customs Union with the European Community on the Way to the Membership with the EU), 1995.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was in Brussels for the first time in four years with the aim of resuscitating Turkey's bid to join the European Union. What is the significance of this?
It is significant especially considering that 2009 has started with new developments for the world. When Turkey and the EU started accession negotiations in October 2005, the process was expected to be a technical one even though there could be bumps along the way; however, time has shown that it has not been the case. It has been understood in time that Turkey's situation was different.
How different has it been?
When other countries started accession negotiations with the EU, they have known, more or less, when they would become members of the EU. But for Turkey this was not the case, and no dates have been given.
Because Turkey's accession to the EU has been divisive for EU countries. A number of countries have been stressing that Turkey is geostrategically important and that the cost of saying no to Turkey would be too much for Europe, while another group of countries, grouped around France and Germany, have been stressing the cost of Turkey to the EU. So the discussion in Europe has been continuing. As a result, this ambiguity over Turkey's membership in the EU has created an atmosphere of distrust in the Turkish public against the EU although the public is still behind Turkey's EU membership goal. However, the EU countries should realize that we have entered another period with new developments in the world in 2009, increasing Turkey's significance even more for the EU.
Would you elaborate on this idea? Why has Turkey's significance for Europe increased?
The world had been going through a global economic crisis, and the crisis is expected to hit the ceiling this year. Secondly, there has been a global security threat with the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza. Thirdly, Russia's blockage of natural gas supplies to Europe has caused the re-emergence of the Nabucco gas pipeline project, which is expected to go through Turkey. Contrary to the role Turkey had during the Cold War as a periphery country, now Turkey has come to the center in the context of each of these developments. For Europe to exert its soft power, Turkey plays a central role. So the EU should pay attention to the sensitivities of the Turkish public in an environment in which there is a risk perception about where Turkey might be heading other than Europe.
What do you think has caused such a risk perception other than Europe's hesitation toward Turkey's inclusion in the EU?
There was growing anti-Americanism in Turkey following the US interference in Iraq, and this reached new heights with the silence of the US in the face of Israel's brutal offensive in Gaza. We don't know yet how [US President Barack] Obama's policies toward the Middle East will change this. Plus there is a danger that the Turkish public's reaction to Israel's policies in Gaza may get out of hand and turn into hatred toward Jews.
It sounds like anti-Turkey and pro-Turkey camps have plenty to worry about. Now that Ankara might be willing to push long-delayed reforms, should we expect changes in the accession process?
Turkey's distractions, like fighting domestic crises including a court case to close the ruling party, have played into the hands of the anti-Turkey camp in the EU. Ankara also has made a mistake by not appointing a full-time EU negotiator until now and leaving the task to the foreign minister. Now that there is Egemen Bağış, appointed as the first full-time EU negotiator, the government is giving the message that the EU remains a priority issue. And Erdoğan, who has been criticized for his absence on the European scene, is giving a strong message that Turkey is behind its EU bid.
'Europeans cannot solve Cyprus issue without Turkey'
What else needs to be done by Turkey at the EU level to enliven the Turkish public's support for the reform process?
There is a need to pressure EU officials to obtain a calendar on Turkey's accession to the European Union. The current open-ended policies of the EU toward Turkey's accession will not get the Turkish public really excited about accession. Turkey's chief negotiator has an important role in following up on the technical aspects of accession. At the same time, he needs strong political support from the prime minister to pursue Turkey's accession goal. Erdoğan's visit to Brussels with the new chief negotiator, Bağış, is important in that sense, sending the message that there are actions behind words.
You have mentioned during our conversation that 2009 may be a decisive year to make or break with the EU and that the issue of Cyprus may be key. Why?
The continuation of the current situation over the Cyprus issue would be a good excuse to break the relations with the EU. Europeans should see that they cannot solve the Cyprus issue without Turkey. Again there is the issue of will on the part of the EU -- if the EU has the will to accept Turkey into the EU, then the Cyprus issue will be quickly solved.
What type of action would bring a solution to the problem?
Having the KKTC accepted into the EU would solve the problem together with giving a full membership guarantee to Turkey.
Now the EU's isolation continues on the northern Cypriots, and, on the other hand, Turkey refuses to open its air and sea ports to Greek Cypriot traffic. Which side is going to take the first step to resolve the issue?
When the Turkish Cypriots supported the same Annan plan that the Greek Cypriots rejected, the EU did not deliver what it promised, which was to reduce the isolation of the Turkish Cypriots and, as a result, Turkey has refused to open its air and sea ports to Greek Cypriot traffic. Moreover, the EU suspended accession negotiations on eight chapters because of Turkey's stance and agreed to review the situation in 2009. As a matter of fact, it is time for Turkey to review its policy of closing its air and sea ports to Greek Cypriot traffic because there are misperceptions about this issue.
What kind of misperceptions?
The misperception in the public about the issue is that if Turkey opens its air and sea ports to Greek Cypriot traffic that would mean the recognition of the Greek Cypriot administration. Indeed we closed the air and sea ports to Greek Cypriot traffic in 1992; they were open before.
What would happen if Turkey changes that policy? Would there be any harm to the country?
There would be no harm. Turkey could open even one of its air and sea ports to Greek Cypriot traffic as a symbolic gesture, but now both the EU and Turkey have adopted a policy of reciprocal stubbornness. At this point, there should be a synchronous move by the two sides to reach a solution.
'Turkey needs to update its fears'
From here we can move to discuss another perception or misperception by the Turkish public that the European Union is trying to divide Turkey.
There are two types of discussions about the EU in Turkey. One says that the EU has been trying to divide Turkey, and the other says whatever EU says it is right. Indeed, neither of these ideas is true. International relations are based on mutual interests. Foreign policy requires a rational approach. There are some Turkish people who cannot see that fact. As we watch the case of Ergenekon -- a police investigation into a neo-nationalist gang believed to be the extension of a clandestine network of groups with members in the armed forces -- and see the people who are being detained, we realize that a lot of them have had anti-EU stances. The reason for that is because such criminal networks are fed only by conflict. One of Turkey's serious problems is that it still has been unable to overcome its fears. In Turkey there are basically three types of fears that lead to conflict in society: fears about the country's division, fears about the coming of Shariah and fears about military coups. However, the world is not interested in those fears. Turkey is strategically important because there are global fears about the economic crisis, the security and energy crisis, etc. If Turkey can overcome its own fears, then it can show the world in a comfortable and confident way that it can, indeed, offer soft power solutions to such global fears.
Can the EU not exercise its soft power without Turkey?
Even soft power needs military power. International relations are based on a certain balance of power, and the basis for that power is military power. As the average age in EU countries approaches 60, it is hard to talk about military manpower. In the region, all countries except Turkey consume security; only Turkey produces security. In addition, some hegemonic forces, such as arms dealers, try to create fights between civilizations. And it is not in the EU's best interest to be involved in conflicts, especially in hegemonic wars. Europe has neither arms nor military manpower to be involved in such fights. The EU's best interests lie in reconciling civilizations. If Europe defines itself only within the limits of Christianity, it would not be able to offer solutions for the future of the region. On the other hand, Turkey is both a Muslim and secular country.
So do you say that Turkey's position as a Muslim country that is also secular is to both Turkey and Europe's advantage?
Yes, with those qualities Turkey would be instrumental in reconciling conflicts by using soft power. Only Turkey can play a reconciliatory role between Hamas and Israel, but it would lose its part if it were to speak only on behalf of Hamas. Turkey looks like it is not yet a mature player in the soft power game. That means Turkey should study its lessons more, not that Turkey has lost its chance and importance because of a few blunders.