Turkey has been given what looks like an ultimatum from the European Union Commission: open your ports for ships from Cyprus within a month, or you may risk a halt to the EU accession talks now underway. At the same time, the Commission’s latest report on Turkey’s progress toward accession notes that political reforms htave slowed down, further calling into question the country’s future EU membership.
The Commission’s progress report will be dealt with by the European Council next month. At that meeting, European leaders should ask themselves the following questions: Has the EU given Turkey a fair deal in the case of Cyprus? Has the EU’s behavior been consistent in supporting political reform in Turkey? What are the EU’s long-term interests vis-à-vis Turkey? If the answers to the first two questions are ‘no’ – as I believe they are – the third question becomes vitally important.
True, Turkey has closed its ports to ships from the Greek part of Cyprus, and this is a violation of agreements. But it is also true that the northern Turkish part of Cyprus is denied access to free trade and other benefits of EU membership. This is because Cyprus remains a divided island. It was assumed that Cyprus should be united when the country joined the EU in 2004. A United Nations plan for unification was accepted by the Turkish part. But the Greek Cypriots voted against the plan because their leaders did not live up to the implicit deal with the EU to support it.
Nevertheless, Cyprus became an EU member – but only the Greek part. This was clearly a mistake, because it made the EU part of the conflict. It gave Greek Cypriot leaders the possibility of blocking progress in negotiations between the EU and Turkey. So how can Turkey under these conditions maintain confidence in the EU’s fairness?
Political and legal reforms in Turkey in recent years have been remarkably far-reaching, for they have clearly been spurred by the Turks wish to move closer to the EU. But Turkish public support for EU membership has fallen dramatically as Turks have grown to feel that they are not being given a fair deal. This has given new strength to those who want Turkey to develop in another direction, toward a more Islamic society instead of a modern secular state. Therefore, the recent lack of progress in Turkey’s reform process can to a large extent be explained by the EU’s behavior.
This leaves us with the third question: what kind of Turkey does the EU want? There should be no doubt about the answer: it is clearly in the EU’s interest to see Turkey’s democracy and economy continue to strengthen.
More than 40 years ago, it was promised that once Turkey lived up to the preconditions for membership, it would be welcome in the EU. It is high time that European leaders take this promise seriously. It is a sad fact that a large majority of voters in the EU are against Turkish membership. But they are reacting to the current situation. When they are asked if they would like a reformed Turkey as a partner – a Turkey that lives up fully to the conditions for membership described in the Copenhagen Criteria (democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights, and an effective market economy), many more are inclined to say yes.
European leaders must therefore take up two challenges. First, they should say clearly to their own voters that the EU must live up to its promises to Turkey, and that this is in the larger interest of all Europeans. Second, they should give Turkey a fair deal in the negotiations.
The first litmus test on European leadership concerns the practical problem of access to harbors. Here the Finns, who chair the EU right now, have taken an initiative to implement a pragmatic solution that takes into consideration both sides in the conflict. The Finnish initiative should be given strong support from all European leaders.
At the same time, a new effort should be made to bring life to the UN’s proposals regarding Cyprus. If this means putting pressure on some actors within the EU’s own ranks, so be it.
Uffe Ellemann-Jensen is a former foreign minister of Denmark. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).