Turkey’s prime minister is due to visit Brussels Sunday to bolster his country’s bid to join the European Union. In 2004 the country finally received the official go ahead for the start of membership talks after a 40 year wait. But following an initial wave of reforms, Turkey’s progress has slowed. 2009 is shaping up to be a significant year in deciding the fate of Turkey EU aspirations.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey had finally secured the start of accession talks with the European Union. The agreement which was signed in 2004 came only after fraught overnight negotiations to persuade Austria to lift its veto against Turkish membership.
Celebrations in Turkish cities erupted as the Turkish government introduced a series of reforms aimed at meeting EU membership demands, bringing the possibility of membership closer. But experts say that enthusiasm soon diminished.
Richard Howitt is a member of the European Parliament’s committee on Turkey. He is one of the most ardent supporters of Ankara’s bid but says there is now growing disillusionment with Turkey.
“We haven’t in the last one two three years seen a continued momentum for the reform process. I think that the progress has just about ground to the halt,” he said. “They have told us they have had a general election, they have had presidential election they had the closure case against the governing AK Party. And each time they have said wait until this domestic crisis is over or this election is over, and then the reform process will start. But patience is running out.”
The EU’s latest report on progress in Turkey’s membership was filled with stinging criticism over the lack of development. Adding to that voice is a recent report by U.S.-based Human Rights Watch which says abuses by Turkish security forces are starting to rise again, a charge denied by Ankara.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said such criticisms are all part of the accession process.
“Until Turkey becomes a full member, we will have criticisms about things which we have not yet done,” he said. “But on the other hand, we have prepared our national program which is almost finalized, which will cover wide variety of reforms.”
According to opinion polls, public support for the country’s EU bid is also on the wane.
Taksim square in the heart of Istanbul, is a popular place for the country’s educated youth to hang out. While there appears to be still strong support for the ideal of European membership many have doubts over Europe’s sincerity.
“If Turkey becomes a member of the European Union, the individual rights, the human rights, the democratic rights, will be a daily valid reality of this country,” said one person.
“They in fact don’t want us, because our culture, our religion, our living style. It is all about us,” said another citizen. “It shows prejudice to our country to our culture, but I believe that Turkey does not need European Union to be a powerful or strong country.”
Besides Turkey’s human-rights and freedom-of-speech record, another point of contention for membership accession is the issue of the reunification of Cyprus, which the EU wants to see resolved.
Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, despite the fact that the island was still divided, its “green line” patrolled by U.N. soldiers, and with EU laws not applied to the Turkish Cypriot north.
Since then, Turkey and Cyprus has engaged in a cat-and-mouse game over whether Turkey will recognize the Republic of Cyprus without the Greek Cypriots moving to end the isolation of northern Cyprus and to restart peace talks.
In 2005, Turkey signed the so-called Ankara protocol extending its customs union deal to the 10 new EU member states including Cyprus. But it insisted this did not amount to recognition and it bars Greek Cypriot shipping and planes from its ports and airports.
European Parliamentarian Howitt warns that with support for Turkey already starting to ebb away in Brussels, Cyprus could be the trigger for the collapse in the accession process.
“If there is no breakthrough on Cyprus, and if the legal requirement built in to the decision which started the talks, that Turkey must open its ports and airports to the republic of Cyprus ships and planes is not respected that on its own,” he said. “Irrespective all other issues I don’t want it to happen. But I have to sound the warning bell , and I think the danger is underestimated within Turkey., that must not leave it too late or the worst, the train crash that has been talked about might actually happen.”
Experts say Mr. Erdogan’s visit to Brussels is seen as a gesture to help rebuild relations and put Turkey’s bid back on track for membership. Analysts say the prime minister is expected to present Turkey as a bridge for Europe to the Islamic world. He is also expected to highlight the peacekeeping roles the Turkish army has played in Kosovo, Afghanistan and now possibly Gaza. But observers say the question many will be asking is whether Erdogan’s visit will be an empty gesture or the start of a new commitment to EU accession. (By Dorian Jones)