New hope for EU-Turkey relations?

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France and Cyprus are invariably singled out as the spoilers in the tangled EU-Turkey affair. Well, you should think twice. 

The election of François Hollande back in May changed the atmospherics between Ankara and Paris as it removed "Turcosceptic" Nicolas Sarkozy from the equation. However, when I was drafting the Turkey section of  ECFR's 2013 Scorecard I thought it was too early to cheer as no chapter blocked by Sarko in the EU membership talks had been “unfrozen”. 

Now Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister, made the first step. At a conference dealing with security in Libya and North Africa, attended also by his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoğlu, he disclosed that both had agreed to open Chapter 22 (regional policy). That’s significant on several counts. It will be the first chapter to be put on the table since June 2010 when the then Spanish Presidency of the Council pushed through the dossier on food safety, veterinary & phytosanitary policy. In addition, the importance of France’s decision has to do with the arguments deployed by Sarkozy to justify his veto. While Cyprus’ problem is Turkey’s refusal to implement the 2004 Ankara agreement to let Greek Cypriot vessels and aircraft into Turkish ports and airports, Paris objected to the notion that the negotiations should necessarily be geared to full membership.

A reminder: in 2005, before the launch of the talks, the Turkish government accepted a Janus-faced formula:

“The shared objective of the negotiations is accession. These negotiations are an open-ended process, the outcome of which cannot be guaranteed beforehand.”  

Paris blocked those chapters, including Regional Policy, where negotiations could mean accession only. Well, now it’s sort of conceding that the talk of an alternative path of integration is not the way forward (though the emergence of multi-tier Europe certainly raises interesting issues in that respect). And there is more to come - Hollande is expected to arrive in Ankara in March. Let’s see if the visit results in more chapters being opened. Sceptics caution that even Chapter 22 could be delayed as there are technical benchmarks to be met before opening (unlike Chapter 17 on the Economic and Monetary Union whose political value is therefore higher).

And let's not forget about Cyprus. The island republic is holding presidential elections this Sunday. Nikos Anastasiades, of the centre-right Democratic Rally (DYSI), is expected to win. Back in 2004 he campaigned for the “yes” vote in the failed referendum on the reunification with the breakaway Turkish North, in line with the Annan Plan. A victory now could create fresh impetus in the reunification talks and could improve relations between Nicosia and Ankara. Let's hope for the best, nothing seems predetermined.

My friend Barçın Yinanç shrewdly observes that Anastasiades, if voted in, would first be tasked with sorting out the grave crisis besetting Cyprus’ financial sector and the likely eurozone bailout.  In all frankness, time works against uniting the island as younger Greek Cypriots are simply not interested and, deep down inside, content with the status quo. I do remember the hype when in 2008 Demetris Christofias took over the presidency from the hardliner Tassos Papadopoulos (the one who basically killed the Annan Plan in 2004). Despite his history in the cross-national labour movement in Cyprus and his good relationship with the dovish leader of the Turkish Cypriots Mehmet Ali Tallat, Christofias achieved little on the reunification track. So pinning hopes high might lead to disappointment.

This is not to dismiss the fact that thinks are moving forward on the Turkey-EU front. It’s not only France and Cyprus but also the visa-liberalisation roadmap which was published by the Council on 30 November and, domestically, the ongoing talks with the PKK.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that both AKP and the EU leaders will grasp this opportunity before it slips away. Are you listening Messrs Hollande, Anastasiades and Erdoğan?

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