The new chapter opportunity for Turkish-European relations

The new chapter opportunity for Turkish-European relations

The European Commission’s decision on Oct. 22 to open a new chapter in EU membership negotiations with Turkey gives a new chance to revive relations, which have suffered a number of ups and downs in recent years.

The chapter in regional policies is the first one to have been opened for the last three years. Praising the decision on Oct. 23, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan said he had expected more as the French attitude has changed, pointing to the milder attitude of French President François Hollande compared to his predecessor Nicholas Sarkozy. Erdoğan has a point, since in the absence of Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, despite keeping up her position against Turkey’s membership right after an election victory, did not stop the opening of a new chapter. But it is clear that the French position is not the only factor in Turkish-EU relations.

The problems were listed in the progress report released by the Commission a week ago on Oct. 16, and actually come under two broad titles.

One of them is about the level of democratic standards in Turkey. From the police attitude during the Gezi wave of protests to dialogue for a political solution to the Kurdish problem, from lack of progress in judicial quality to problems in transparency and separation of state powers, many troubling areas are mentioned in the report, which also does give credit to the government for its announcement of commitment for the reform process.

The other one is the Cyprus problem.

The Commission wants Turkey to open up its ports to Greek Cypriot ships, as an obligation of the 1963 agreement, and Turkey wants the EU to end the embargo and isolation of the Turkish Cypriots, as promised in 2004 when it was the Turkish side, not Greek side, that approved a reunification plan sponsored by the U.N. through a referendum. It is the Greek Cypriot government of the Republic of Cyprus alone that is blocking the opening of eight negotiation chapters. If the new round of talks between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots (expected on Oct. 26) brings any positive results, there might be some improvement in the Cyrus issue, which would benefit Turkey’s EU bid.

There is more. Three years ago, when the last chapter was opened, there was no Arab Spring in sight. Turkish officials were able to talk to all official and unofficial parties in the Middle East without much difficulty; something that was not possible for many actors in the West. This is not exactly the case nowadays, as the Turkish pilots kidnapped in Lebanon could only be saved with the help of Qatar and Iran. The developments in Egypt and Syria, the ongoing conflict with Israel, and Iran’s unprecedented reconciliation with the U.S., is forcing Turkey to revise its policy from over-involvement in the open ended and unsafe developments in the Middle East to the also open-ended but safer relations with the EU.

On the other hand, the EU is likely to revise its policy regarding the Middle East and generally the Arab world due to the end of the Spring. That is not only to take a guard against the spillover of terrorism, but also against new waves of immigration that could add more to the economic and social burden especially on the shoulders of the Eurozone countries still dealing with the consequences of the economic crisis. Merkel, who is the only European leader who wielded power through the crisis, is likely to play a major role in that sense. And after the failure of Arab Spring experiment, some European leaders might also have reconsidered keeping and strengthening ties with Turkey by encouraging democratic life there and by giving credit to its secular system, which separates government from religion, as a unique example in a predominantly Muslim country.