How the EU lost its leverage on Turkey

It has just turned 60 years old; Turkey’s one-sided love affair with the EU started on 31 July 1959, when it applied for association with the EEC (European Economic Community) founded in 1958. Turkish fascination with Europe began more than 300 years ago, during the last centuries of the Ottoman Empire. It was embodied first by the modernization of the army under the European military experts. Then, to put it mildly, with the encouragement of European powers, a reform process (Tanzimat-Reorganization) was started by the Ottoman elite that, according to some Ottoman historians, lead to the disintegration of the Empire. However, they had no other choice than to be a part of the emerging European order. Albeit that the first adventure of Turks with Europe ended with a complete disaster. 

After losing the First World War against the Allied powers, the Empire was invaded by them. Yet they succeeded in liberating a portion of the Empire, built a republic on its ruins, abolished the caliphate, swallowed their pride and anger, and once again turned towards Europe by starting a new reform process. Because “Europe was the source of contemporary civilization. The new republic should have adopted its ways to progress.” Many republican generations grew up with this belief. Thus in 1959, Turkey knocked on the door of Europe and started to wait to enter.

The EEC accepted Turkey’s application. The Ankara Agreement was signed in 1963. Turkey’s application for full membership was rejected in 1989, but it was stated that Turkey was eligible to join the community. The Customs Union was established between Turkey and the EU in 1995. In 1999, Turkey was officially recognised without any precondition as a candidate state. The Accession Partnership for Turkey was accepted in 2001. 

Turkey continued its reform process, to “extend the scope of fundamental rights and freedoms, strengthen the existing regulations on democracy, rule of law, freedom of thought and expression and human rights. Within this framework between 2002-2004, eight harmonization packages, and between 2001-2004 two constitutional amendments were accepted.”

In 2004, the EU Council stated, “Turkey sufficiently fulfilled the political criteria” and decided to start accession negotiations with Turkey in 2005. Turkey’s accession process is conducted in 35 chapters in the context of Negotiation Framework, 16 chapters are opened so far yet only one chapter is closed. 14 chapters are blocked because of Turkey’s refusal to recognize the Greek Cypriot led Republic of Cyprus – which was admitted to the EU in 2004, despite Turkey’s objections – as the sole representative of Cypriot people since it is not the original partnership State established in 1960. 

Therefore, after 60 years, Turkey is still waiting at the doorstep of Europe not because of the state of its democracy, or its economy or because of its decision to buy Russian made S-400 missiles but because of the Cyprus problem. 

“Why Turkey is not solving the Cyprus problem?” Turkey wants to solve it since it has been a huge burden both politically and financially and the negotiations to solve the Cyprus problem has been continuing, on and off, since 1958. Yet, it is believed that a final solution is being prevented by the forces that are against Turkey’s EU membership. 

Let’s verify this from a rather objective observer. A prize-winning journalist, then with Reuters, Paul Taylor found out that Europe itself is divided on the Cyprus issue. The most powerful member states, Germany and France, “may be content to see the Cyprus stalemate continue rather than deal with the potential consequences of a resolution that would bring Turkey closer to EU membership.”

At his article dated February 4, 2013, from Paris, he wrote that the Republic of Cyprus was broke and desperate to get a loan about €17 billion from the EU. Therefore, Brussels had the leverage to push the Greek Cypriots to join in a loose federation as proposed in 2004 by Kofi Annan, then the U.N. secretary-general. Turkish Cypriots voted in favour of the Annan plan, encouraged by Turkey but Greek Cypriots rejected it. “Turkey invaded northern Cyprus in 1974 in response to a Greek-backed coup in Nicosia by Greek Cypriot hardliners seeking union with Athens. The island has been divided ever since. Turkey has about 30,000 troops in northern Cyprus. Under the Annan plan, most of them would have gone home by 2018,” he reminded. 

However, the Greek Cypriots who said no to the Annan plan became an EU state just after a week. At that time European officials, and especially Günter Verheugen, the EU enlargement commissioner felt betrayed Taylor wrote. He quoted him saying, “ The understanding was quite clear when we gave Turkey candidate status in 1999 and even clearer when we concluded negotiations with Cyprus in 2002: The Greek Cypriots would not allow the peace plan to fail, and if it failed due to the Turkish Cypriots, then Cyprus could join… We came very close. The problem was that in the end, we didn’t have any leverage over the Greek Cypriots anymore since they knew they would join anyway.”

On the other hand, the Turkish Cypriots who accepted the peace plan were punished by being excluded from the Union and remained economically isolated. “At the time, Brussels released some funds that had been pledged to the Turkish Cypriots for economic development and promised to allow them to export their products directly to the Union. But the Greek Cypriots blocked direct trade with the Union. Turkey, in turn, refused to allow the Greek Cypriots direct access to its ports and airports,” Taylor added.

He also underlined that the US was actively engaged in trying to settle the Cyprus dispute until large amounts of natural gas were found over Cyprus, and Greek Cypriots began to cooperate with Israel. So Europe using the loan to put pressure on the Greek Cypriots is the last chance for the unification of the island, he warned but no avail. 

If we fast-forward, today we see American and European gas giants also got involved in the Cyprus issue. Washington is making harsh announcements against Ankara because of its drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean. 

A very aggressive media campaign has started, portraying Ankara as a rough state, which has no right over Cyprus or it’s continental shelf at all, only by using the fact that the Republic of Cyprus is the only internationally recognized state in Cyprus (which is in fact a great injustice to the Cypriot Turks.) On top of it, the EU has put sanctions on Ankara to stop its drilling. They are symbolic, yet the act itself was the last straw for Turkish people. It has proved once again that the EU plays a double game on Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots. 

In that regard, the findings of the comprehensive survey, “Public Perceptions on Turkish Foreign Policy” conducted by the prestigious Kadir Has University of Turkey just before the EU sanctions- are interesting. It has found out that 61.1 percent of the respondents still supported Turkey’s membership to the EU. Yet 68 percent think that Turkey can never become a full member of the Union, 65 percent of the respondents think Turkey’s membership has been blocked by European countries, 54.4 percent of them believe it is because of the religious and identity differences and 51.5 percent of them see the EU “not reliable and sincere”. Finally when asked, “Which countries pose threat to Turkey?” They responded as; USA 81.3 percent, Israel 70.8 percent, France 65 percent, United Kingdom 62.8 percent, Armenia 61.2 percent, Syria 60.1 percent, Germany 58.8 percent, Greece 53.5 percent and so on. In 2015 only 10.2 percent saw the EU countries as a threat. 

Consequently, after 60 years, most of the Turkish people lost hope in becoming part of Europe, and Turkey’s second adventure with Europe seemingly is coming to end, hopefully in peace this time.