Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Brussels on January 18 and 19 to discuss Turkish-European relations. The trip, the first of its kind since 2004, comes against the background of criticism that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has abandoned its commitment to EU membership. Critics point to the government’s reluctance to take steps to break the deadlock in negotiations since the talks started in 2005. The AKP, in contrast, highlights the EU’s own mishandling of the accession process with Turkey and the EU’s internal problems following the 2004 enlargement. As some observers have called 2009 the “make or break year,” Erdogan recently began a new bid to revitalize Turkey’s stalled membership process by appointing a new state minister to lead the negotiations (EDM, January 12). His trip provided an important forum to reaffirm the parties’ willingness to mend fences and renew trust.
Erdogan held meetings with Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, High Representative of Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, and President of the European Parliament Hans Gert Pottering. He also spoke with representatives of the Turkish community, gave a talk at the European Policy Center, and delivered the keynote address at a dinner organized by Friends of Europe.
Throughout his trip, Erdogan emphasized that his government would make 2009 a “leap year.” Rebuffing criticism that the government lacked determination, Erdogan argued “the EU is our top priority, and we don’t have any alternatives to it.” Showing his self-confidence in Turkey’s future contribution to the EU, Erdogan also said that Turkey would not be a burden on the EU but was ready to share its burdens. He emphasized the compatibility of both sides’ interests, including energy security. On their part, EU officials pressed for more reforms on trade unions and minority rights and underlined the need to convince the European public about Turkey’s accession. Yet, they welcomed Ankara’s efforts to deliver some reforms to comply with the EU’s expectations and stressed the common areas of strategic interest (www.cnnturk.com, January 19, Zaman, January 20).
Overall, Erdogan appeared to be unwavering from his previous positions. First, he repeated the AKP’s claim that “Turkey did its homework.” Although the EU institutions and domestic pro-reform groups continuously criticize the government for failing to deliver on the reforms required by the EU, Erdogan highlighted his government’s “achievements,” which in his view were sufficient to fulfill Turkey’s part of the agreement. He referred to the recently opened Kurdish-language channel on the state-owned TV network and the legislative reforms on laws regulating foundations and freedom of opinion. With regard to Turkey’s shortcomings in meeting the EU’s demands, he put the blame on the Turkish opposition parties, arguing that they had failed to support the government’s reform efforts in parliament (www.cnnturk.com, January 19).
Second, Erdogan also repeated his previous criticism of the EU’s unfair attitude in the accession process. Unsatisfied with the slow pace of accession negotiations, Erdogan has been calling on the EU to accelerate the process by opening more than two chapters per presidency (every six months). He asked the future presidencies to break with this “routine.” He also complained about the EU’s delay in approving the end-of-screening reports on nine chapters since 2006. Turkey started talks on 10 of the 35 chapters, and it has completed negotiations on only one. The EU has put several chapters on hold, due to the objections of the Greek Cypriot administration and France (Today’s Zaman, January 20).
Calling on the EU to revitalize the process, Erdogan said, “We are not requesting privileged treatment; we ask for equal and fair treatment.” He was echoing Euro-skeptic sentiments among the Turkish public, which increasingly feels that the EU is applying double standards against Turkey by treating it differently from other candidates. In that regard, he also maintained that the declining support for EU membership in the opinion polls was caused by negative remarks of some European leaders about Turkey (Hurriyet Daily News, January 20).
As part of his complains that internal EU politicking posed obstacles to Turkey, Erdogan did not hesitate to name the Greek Cypriots. He lambasted the EU’s decision in 2004 to admit the Republic of Cyprus without resolving the divided status of the island (Anadolu Ajansi, January 19). Since its accession to the EU, according to Ankara, the Greek Cypriots have blocked the start of negotiations with Turkey on crucial chapters, most significantly energy.
Given the growing importance of energy security on the EU agenda in the wake of the Russian-Georgian war and the Russian-Ukrainian standoff, the implications of the energy issue for Turkey’s membership process occupied an important part of Erdogan’s portfolio. As the Budapest Summit on Nabucco approaches, the EU is to support the Nabucco project, which would transport Caspian gas to European markets through Turkish territory (EDM, January 16).
Erdogan stated at the European Policy Center on Monday that if Turkey were confronted with a deadlock in the energy chapter, it might have to revise its position on Nabucco. This raised concerns that Turkey might be threatening to use its position in energy security as a bargaining chip for Turkish-EU talks. Erdogan also said that although some countries didn’t want Turkey to cooperate with Iran in energy transportation, “cutting ties with Iran is out of question. Nobody can dictate our [energy] policies” (ANKA, January 19).
Nonetheless, following his meeting with Commission President Barroso on the second day, Erdogan ruled out a threat, saying that Turkey would not “use energy as a weapon.” Barroso emphasized areas of mutual cooperation and highlighted Turkey’s strategic position in particular. He pointed to the need for a good partnership in energy security between Turkey and the EU and praised Turkey’s constructive role in Middle Eastern diplomacy (Anadolu Ajansi, www.ntvmsnbc.com.tr, January 19).
European officials constantly remind Turkey that its strategic position alone will not suffice to bring it full membership. Nonetheless, at a time when the EU is pressed hard in energy security, Turkey’s geography apparently does pay some dividends. Responding to Erdogan’s call for help against the EU members blocking negotiations, Barroso promised his full support to start talks on the frozen chapters moving again.
If both Erdogan and Barroso can keep their promises, the former delivering on postponed reforms and the latter removing internal EU obstacles, Turkish-EU relations may experience a new phase of dynamism, similar to that from 2002 to 2005.