Fresh off Turkey’s recent national referendum approving constitutional reforms officials hope will move the country closer to EU membership, Ankara’s chief EU negotiator, Egemaen Bagis, was making the rounds in Brussels this week in an attempt to restart the stalled effort.
Poor old Turkey has been getting mixed messages from European governments again, after visits by Britain’s David Cameron and Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, this week.
The UK prime minister was very outspoken in his support for Turkish membership of the European Union. “I will remain your strongest possible advocate for EU membership,” he said. “Together I want us to pave the road from Ankara to Brussels.”
It was familiar British policy, but spelt out with unusual passion, and very few cautionary words. Praising Turkey’s contributions as a Nato ally (no mention of Ankara’s tiresome blocking of Nato-EU co-operation on security issues), Mr Cameron declared: “It’s just wrong to say Turkey can guard the camp but not be allowed to sit inside the tent.”
Turkish media seized on some of the most flattering comments from Mr Cameron. “Our golden age” was the headline in the top-selling newspaper Hurriyet, while the Sabah daily blazoned its front page with “The EU would be poor without Turkey”.
Turkey’s bid to join the European Union is expected to make a little progress today. I stress “a little”. In most respects, the cause of Turkish membership of the EU is in worse shape than at any time since EU governments recognised Turkey as an official candidate in 2004.
The progress, minimal though it is, takes the form of an agreement by the EU and Turkey to open formal talks on food security. This is one of the 35 chapters, or policy areas, that a country must complete before it can join the EU. It means that Turkey will have opened 13 chapters in total. Of these, however, only one chapter has been closed. If this is progress, the snail is king of the race track.
Two weeks ago European leaders decided to postpone an upcoming summit of something called the Union for the Mediterranean. It is safe to say that very few people in the Mediterranean noticed or cared.
The story of the UfM is a classic tale of what passes for foreign policy in today’s European Union. The organisation was the brainchild of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who wanted to strengthen relations between the EU’s southern member-states – such as France, Italy and Spain – and their North African and Arab neighbours across the sea. It was not a bad idea in principle. But it aroused the suspicions of Germany and other northern EU countries, which insisted in the name of European unity that all EU member-states should belong to the UfM.
The election of Dervis Eroglu as Turkish Cypriot president appears at first sight to deal a severe blow to the latest United Nations-sponsored efforts at solving the Cyprus problem. But appearances can be deceptive. There may, in fact, be an opportunity for a breakthrough. Crucially, however, it will require the involvement of the European Union.
Eroglu, 72, is usually dubbed a “hardline nationalist” in the international media on account of his long-standing commitment to Turkish Cypriot independence. This is to miss the point that the Turkish Cypriots are economically dependent on Turkey and Eroglu can hardly act in defiance of the government in Ankara. It is in the Turks’ wider diplomatic interests to bring about a Cyprus settlement. They have already made it plain to Eroglu that they expect him to behave constructively.
Setting up the European Union’s new diplomatic service was never going to be easy. Turf wars between the EU’s 27 member-states and the European Commission were inevitable, and the ever meddlesome European Parliament was certainly not going to pass up an opportunity to stick its oar in. But if the EU doesn’t get this right, the world’s other big powers will never be convinced that the Europeans are serious about operating a coherent common foreign policy.
A potentially decisive moment is approaching in the Cyprus settlement talks that started in September 2008. Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, is to visit the divided island on Sunday and stay there until Tuesday. He does not, of course, have the authority to impose a settlement or even seriously to bang heads together. But what he can do is impress on the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders that the world is watching them and that a great deal hangs on the outcome of their negotiations.
A sense of urgency hangs over the talks because presidential elections will be held in Turkish Cypriot-controlled northern Cyprus on April 18. Mehmet Ali Talat, the leftist president who helped revive the effort at reaching a comprehensive settlement more than 16 months ago, looks vulnerable to the challenge of Dervis Eroglu, the nationalist prime minister.
Tuesday’s murder of Bobi Tsankov, a young Bulgarian journalist who wrote about his country’s over-mighty gangsters, took place in broad daylight in a crowded street in the centre of Sofia. As a statement about the power of organised crime in Bulgaria, it could hardly have been more explicit.
Moreover, it could hardly have come at a worse time for Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s government. Borissov came to power in July facing the arduous task of regaining the trust of Bulgaria’s European Union partners. Some of them bitterly regretted their decision to let Bulgaria join the EU in 2007 before it had properly confronted the scourge of organised crime. A 2008 European Commission report on Bulgaria’s progress in tackling corruption and organised crime was, in my view, the most negative ever produced about a EU member-state.
Is it Islamophobia, ignorance, a crisis of European identity, a problem of a poorly integrated minority community, or something of all of these?
According to an opinion poll published in today’s Le Soir , one of Belgium’s leading newspapers, some 59.3 per cent of Belgians support a ban on the construction of new minarets in their country. This is about 2 per cent more than the proportion of Swiss who voted in a referendum last month to halt the building of new minarets.
Next week’s summit of European Union leaders faces an important choice on Turkey. Should the EU toughen existing measures that are holding up Turkey’s EU accession talks, because of Ankara’s refusal to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic? Or should the EU recognise that this would send completely the wrong message, just when Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders are trying to reach a comprehensive settlement of the long-standing Cyprus dispute?
Precisely because the EU is divided on the Turkish question – the Greek Cypriot-run government of Cyprus wants a strong line, and other countries are split between supporters and opponents of Turkey’s entry into the EU – it seems unlikely that a consensus can be reached in favour of placing additional obstacles in the path of Turkey’s negotiations.