Turkey’S Uphill Battle
An elusive European goal.


There are optimistic signs that, at long last, Turkey’s goal of opening accession talks with the European Union are about to be realized. Visiting Turkey last month, European Commission President Romano Prodi noted that “impressive progress has been achieved, and the country is now closer to the Union.” Several days ago, Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, in talks with his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul, observed that Turkey has taken “very important steps to meet the Copenhagen criteria.” (These criteria state that any potential applicant to the EU must be a full democracy, have a strong market economy, and harmonize domestic legislation with EU regulations.)

Negotiations to reunite the divided island of Cyprus have restarted under United Nations auspices. Should a settlement be reached prior to May 1, 2004–when the internationally recognized government and the territory it controls enter the EU–a major stumbling block to Turkey’s own candidacy (since Turkey supports the Turkish Cypriot entity in northern Cyprus) will be removed.

Certainly, an argument can be advanced that Turkey’s geostrategic position makes up for some of the defects in its domestic political and economic situation. A case can also be made that Turkey’s reform process would be immeasurably strengthened by giving Turkey a firm date for beginning accession negotiations. This would certainly validate some of the hard decisions taken by the Erdogan government. And there are some indications that this line of reasoning is being carefully considered by European governments. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, during his visit to Ankara last month, declared, “We stand by Turkey since it has achieved considerable progress in its [progress toward] EU membership.”

Yet despite all of the positive news, there are still barriers in the road. There is a growing sense in some European circles that Turkey, despite its ambitious reform program, will not be able to meet the Copenhagen criteria by the December 2004 EU summit.

And some international indicators lend credence to those assessments. In its 2003-04 survey, Freedom House assigned Turkey a ranking of 3 for political rights and 4 for civil liberties–meaning that the country, although considered to be an electoral democracy, is only “partly free.” (By Freedom House reckoning, a “partly free” state is one where the population enjoys some basic political rights and liberties, but where the protection of those freedoms is threatened by rampant corruption, a weak rule of law, civil strife, or limited political pluralism. Russia and Morocco, for example, are also classified as “partly free” states by the survey.)

Turkey is the only NATO ally to be ranked “partly free.” More significantly, all of the probable EU candidate countries in the Balkans–including Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Croatia–are considered to be “free” countries (where the rule of law prevails, basic human rights are protected, and there is free political competition).

Turkey has made impressive strides, to be sure, and ranks in the upper echelons of the “partly free” category (as opposed to Russia), and if current trends continue, Turkey will eventually be ranked fully “free” by the Freedom House criteria. But this may not occur by the December 2004 deadline.

The results of a survey of over 1,400 leading European business executives taken last fall also cannot be welcome news in Ankara. Fifty-seven percent believed that the EU should not expand after the May 2004 enlargement. Of those favoring the admission of new members, a slight plurality preferred extending an invitation to Russia–which has no immediate pans to join–over Turkey.

And European enthusiasm for Turkish membership may begin to flag if U.S. policymakers continue to intimate that Turkey might act as an American “Trojan horse” within the EU–perhaps even to forestall the development of an independent European foreign and defense policy or to financially weaken the Union. This certainly does not encourage European states to cut Turkey any slack in assessing its compliance with the Copenhagen criteria. And if, by objective standards of assessment, Turkey has not met the criteria by December 2004, the EU is within its rights not to offer a date to start negotiations. And this would have nothing to do with an “anti-Islamic” or “anti-Turkish” bias on the part of current EU member states.

Some European political forces have begun to call for an open and frank dialogue with Turkey, to prepare for the possibility that a date for opening accession talks may not be forthcoming. Angela Merkel, leader of the German Christian Democrats, has called for a “third way” between accession and refusal. In January the CDU released its proposal for a “Privileged Partnership” as an alternative. This would offer Turkey a “comprehensive free-trade area” with Europe, and closer integration in joint military and security efforts, but would fall short of full EU membership for the time being.

The 1999 Helsinki EU summit proclaimed that Turkey was “destined to join the Union.” But destinies and deadlines don’t always coincide.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a senior fellow for strategic studies at the Nixon Center.