Turkey

The sun is shining in Brussels and the sky has an unseasonably blue, cloudless, late-November-in-Rome quality as European Union leaders make their way here for the summit of summits - the event where they will choose the EU’s first full-time president and new foreign policy chief.  I wonder if the weather will be so fine when the leaders finally drag themselves away from the negotiating table after what is shaping up to be a night of relentless hard bargaining.

By general consent, the frontrunner is Herman Van Rompuy, the amiable, haiku-writing Belgian prime minister.  Even a speech he gave in 2004 that reveals him to be an implacable opponent of Turkey’s entry into the EU (Turkey has been an official candidate for the past four years) doesn’t seem to be doing Van Rompuy any harm.  Well, why should it?  It fits in perfectly with the views of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

Even before he was elected as president of France in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy made it crystal-clear that he didn’t want Turkey to join the European Union - ever.  Now concerns are growing in Brussels that Sarkozy is contemplating a formal Franco-German initiative next year to offer Turkey a “privileged partnership” instead of, as now, the long-term prospect of full EU membership.

The idea of a “privileged partnership” has been around for a good few years.  Sarkozy likes it, and so does Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic party.  It also appeals to Angela Merkel, the CDU chancellor.  However, Merkel has up to now taken a nuanced approach, recognising that Germany, along with other EU countries, recognised Turkey as an official candidate for membership in 1999.  A responsible country cannot just wriggle out of agreements made in good faith, Merkel believes. 

Like it or not, the European Union faces the distinct possibility that the latest United Nations-mediated effort at producing a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus dispute will fail.  From a EU perspective, would that be a disaster?  Or just a bit depressing and annoying?  Disaster is a strong word, but the consequences of failure would unquestionably be serious.

Talks between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots have been going on for the past 12 months, and the next round is due to be held on Thursday – having been postponed for a week, because of a row over some Greek Cypriot pilgrims who were trying to visit a church in Turkish Cypriot territory. 

Next Tuesday, Turkey’s bid to join the European Union will creep forward one more inch.  The EU and Turkey will open formal talks on taxation, one of the 35 “chapters”, or policy areas, that a candidate for EU membership must complete before joining the bloc.

Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s chief EU negotiator, is pleased but, unsurprisingly, not overwhelmed.  After the taxation talks start, only 11 of Turkey’s 35 chapters will be open.  The EU froze another eight chapters in December 2006 in retaliation for Turkey’s refusal to open its ports and airports to vessels and aircraft from the Greek Cypriot-controlled government of Cyprus. 

So exciting are European Union summits that they sometimes distract attention from developments that, though perhaps less eye-catching, tell you a lot more about what’s going on in the EU.  For example, the latest two-day summit is concentrating on financial regulation, guarantees for Ireland’s sovereignty so that it can hold another referendum on the EU’s Lisbon treaty, and the nomination of José Manuel Barroso for a second term as European Commission president.

But a more interesting story was the breakdown on Thursday of EU-mediated talks between Slovenia and Croatia over their bilateral maritime border dispute.  This makes it virtually certain that Croatia will not complete its EU accession negotiations by the end of this year – the goal that Barroso and Croatia’s government had originally set themselves. 

When Olli Rehn, the European Union’s enlargement commissioner, underwent his confirmation hearings in 2004, he was asked what goals he hoped to achieve by the end of his five-year spell in office. He named six: a) a EU of 27 member-states, b) Croatia’s entry negotiations in their final stage, c) other western Balkan states put on a EU path through association agreements, d) Turkey firmly on the European track, e) Kosovo’s status settled, and f) Cyprus reunified.

Speaking last Friday at a conference in Prague to mark the fifth anniversary of the EU’s “big bang” expansion from 15 to 25 (and later 27) members, Rehn claimed that he had met five of his six targets. Only Cyprus’s reunification was missing. But even on Cyprus it wasn’t all doom and gloom – talks on a comprehensive settlement had been going on since last September. 

For anyone interested in European energy security, and especially the long-suffering Nabucco gas pipeline project, there was a fascinating piece of news on Monday. The Obama administration appointed Richard Morningstar, a former US ambassador to the European Union, as its special envoy for Eurasian energy issues.

Morningstar has a career background not only in EU affairs but in the energy diplomacy of the Caspian Sea area. As such, there is no one better placed to give the Europeans the benefit of US advice on Nabucco, a project some energy analysts think may be doomed to failure unless resolute action is taken soon to finance it, secure the necessary gas supplies and get it up and running.