On September 16 Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan harshly criticized the EU for the slow pace of Turkey’s accession negotiations. Speaking at an iftar—the meal at sunset at which Muslims break their daytime fast during the month of Ramadan—held for foreign ambassadors in Ankara, Erdogan suggested that the EU lacked enthusiasm for Turkish membership. He accused the EU of double standards by applying more difficult entry criteria for Turkey than for other candidate countries, noting that on average only two of the 33 accession chapters Ankara is due to negotiate with Brussels were opened during each six-month term of the rotating EU presidency.
“Grant us the same rights that you gave to those who came before us. That is all we ask,” Erdogan told the assembled ambassadors. “We don’t want financial aid. If you think that we shall be a burden, then that it is something else and you should tell us. But Turkey is joining not to become a burden but to bear one. This is how you should define and think of Turkey” (Milliyet, Radikal, Hurriyet, Vatan, September 17).
Erdogan’s speech came one day after Ali Babacan, Turkey’s Foreign Minister and its chief negotiator in the accession process, had expressed similar sentiments during a visit to Brussels to meet with EU officials. “We believe the EU is going too slowly,” Babacan declared (Zaman, September 16).
There is no doubt that Erdogan has a point. It is no secret that although several EU member states are enthusiastic supporters of eventual Turkish accession, others—not the least France, which currently holds the EU presidency—have reservations about ever allowing the country to become a member. But the statements by both Erdogan and Babacan also demonstrated how far Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) remains from understanding the nature of the accession process or even the EU itself.
It has recently become fashionable in the pro-AKP media to blame the country’s current ills—including the economic slowdown and the government’s lack of attention to the EU accession process—on the closure case that was filed against the party on March 14 (see EDM, March 17). The AKP has, however, introduced no substantive EU reforms since the accession process was formally inaugurated in the early hours of October 4, 2005.
In his speech to the foreign ambassadors on September 16, Erdogan lambasted the EU for refusing to close any more chapters in the accession process. “In the past, chapters used to be opened and closed. Now, unfortunately, they are only opened,” lamented Erdogan (Radikal, Hurriyet, Vatan, Zaman, September 17).
Erdogan was referring to the EU’s decision in December 2006 to suspend negotiations on eight chapters and refuse to close any others until Turkey extended its 1996 customs union agreement with the EU to include the Republic of Cyprus, which became an EU member in May 2004. Turkey has long refused to recognize the Greek Cypriot government of the Republic of Cyprus or its authority over the entire island. Nevertheless, in order to ensure the official opening of accession negotiations in October 2005, the AKP signed what has become known as the Ankara Protocol in July 2005, in which it agreed to extend its customs union to the Republic of Cyprus, including opening Turkey’s ports and airports to Greek Cypriot ships and planes. It was Turkey’s refusal to honor this commitment that led to the December 2006 suspension of the eight chapters and the refusal to close any others. The AKP still appears unaware that refusing to sign the Ankara Protocol could have been defended as a matter of principle; signing and then refusing to implement it simply looks dishonest.
The AKP appears to have been calculating that the issue would effectively resolve itself once a solution is found to the Cyprus problem. On September 3 Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat and his Greek Cypriot counterpart Dimitris Christofias began the latest round of negotiations to end the 34-year-old division of the island; with Talat even suggesting that they could reach an agreement by the end of the year.
But by September 18, after just two rounds of comprehensive discussions, the talks already appeared to be in danger of descending into mutual point-scoring. The Turkish media quoted Christofias as alleging on September 17 that there were differences between what Talat said outside the negotiating chamber and his demands once he sat down at the table. “The person who said that should first look in the mirror,” the Turkish media quoted Talat as responding (Milliyet, Zaman, NTV, CNNTurk, September 18).
Yet even a successful outcome to the Cyprus negotiations would not, in itself, ensure Turkish accession to the EU. Ultimately, regardless of what other obstacles are put in its path, Turkey can only join the EU if it fulfils the conditions for membership. On September 15, in an apparent contradiction of his claim that it was the EU that was proceeding slowly, Babacan admitted that although the AKP was trying to finalize the details of its National Program to bring Turkey into line with EU norms before the Turkish parliament reconvenes after its summer recess at the beginning of October, it could be 2010 before it was completely legislated.
“The National Program includes a lot of amendments for 2008 and 2009,” said Babacan. “The parliament has a fixed capacity. For this reason, some of the National Program’s amendments may not be legislated until 2010” (Zaman, September 16).
There is general agreement inside the AKP that Babacan has been a failure as chief negotiator and needs to be replaced. There have long been rumors in the AKP that Erdogan is planning a comprehensive reshuffle of his ministers; with speculation currently focusing on the changes being introduced later this fall. There is, however, currently no indication about whom Erdogan may choose to replace Babacan. Perhaps more critically, there is also no sign of an awareness that if Turkey is to succeed in accelerating its accession process, what is needed even more than a change in personnel is a change in mentality.