What Merkel said
German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Turkey this week to discuss bilateral issues as well as regional developments. It was important as it came after Germany sent Patriot missiles to Turkey to show solidarity against potential threats from Syria, and precedes French President François Hollande’s upcoming visit. As a result, although various issues, such as cooperation in counter-terrorism, Syria, the economic crisis, the Turkish diaspora in Germany, German foundations in Turkey and many others were discussed, the public waited to hear her stance on Turkey-EU negotiations.
Expectations were raised before the visit as we learned that Merkel now favors the “opening of a new chapter in order to move forward,” although her skepticism about full membership remains. This is an improvement of sorts. Previously, she was dead set on a “privileged partnership” for Turkey, supported by the former President of France, Nicholas Sarkozy. But things are changing; slowly. First, her steadfast European ally Nicholas Sarkozy lost his re-election bid in May 2012.
Then, despite Merkel’s personal effort to keep the euro and European finance together, both moved decisively toward the other end. European economics is not getting better. Prime Minister Cameron in the UK announced his intention in January 2013 to test his country’s EU membership in a referendum. Finally, last week, Merkel’s compatriot, EU Commissioner for Energy Günter Oettinger, dropped the bombshell. During a meeting hosted by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Brussels, after criticizing Merkel for her mismanagement of the crisis in Europe and EU leaders for their handling of energy issues, he reportedly said that Merkel – possibly along with a French counterpart – will “crawl to Turkey on their knees” to ask Turkish leaders to join the EU. The fact that he was also the former Minister-President of the State of Baden-Württemberg from Merkel’s own party, the CDU, until 2010, and the fact that the CDU lost the state, the third largest in Germany, to Social Democrats in March 2011 for only second time in history, made what he said more important for German domestic politics.
With the forthcoming federal elections in September looming ahead and domestic criticism of Merkel’s handling of, among others, Turkey’s rise, she felt the need to lower her tone in objecting to Turkey’s membership. She does not wish to be a scapegoat for European economic failures for keeping a strong Turkish market out of the EU. Decision of François Hollande to remove his country’s objections on the Regional Policy Chapter also had an effect. As a British diplomat once told me, Germany would never wish to stand alone in Europe; and if Turkey gains the support of France for its membership quest, Germany will eventually follow.
Yet we should not raise our expectations prematurely for renewed Turkey-EU negotiations. Most of the underlying obstacles are still there. Apart from the very pronounced disappointment of Turkish leaders and a halted reform process, Merkel highlighted another important problem: The non-implementation of the Additional Protocol of the Ankara Agreement. While Nicos Anastasiades’ election in Cyprus raises hopes, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s response to Merkel that, “Turkey had taken steps towards this end but had not secured an end to the embargo on northern Cyprus,” shows that nothing changed on this front as of yet.
Another problem is, of course, the pessimistic attitude of the Turkish public toward the process. According to a poll conducted by Kadir Has University, only one third of the population believes that Turkey could become an EU member, although half of them still favor it. This does not give the government much space to start implementing the tough reforms necessary to re-ignite the negotiation process. I hope I am wrong.