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Cyprus Question Could Block Progress for Brussels, Ankara

The European Union on Wednesday published a critical report on the state of bilateral political, economic and trade relations with Türkiye. The report is important in stating a political will for the continuation of a positive agenda after ties have been locked in a stalemate for years. However, issues such as the Cyprus question may render the process fragile.

Ties between Ankara and Brussels have had their ups and downs ever since they signed an association agreement in 1964. Areas of disagreement include the Eastern Mediterranean, the Cyprus question, Türkiye’s role in Syria, the migrant crisis and the stalemate in the accession process. More recently as a result of new geopolitical realities, sanctions against Russia, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have also been added to the report.

With accession talks stalled for years, this report explores how ties can be advanced in different areas – most importantly in visa liberalization, updating the customs union and the migration issue. Moreover, it suggests a further engagement with Ankara in areas of mutual interest, such as trade, investments, connectivity, green and digital transition and energy. On the other hand, it also underlined that this engagement is “reversible.” Now it remains to be seen whether the commission’s recommendations in the report will be accepted by the council, which is to meet in mid-December.

The commission hailed the constructive stance in the Eastern Mediterranean after years of tension with EU member Greece; yet the language concerning the issue was clearly pro-Greece, ignoring Türkiye’s theses on rights in the common seas between the two neighbors. In terms of alignment in the broader region, the report highlighted that Ankara’s policies are at odds with EU security and foreign policies, and that alignment was about 10%. Ankara’s efforts for the grain initiative and mediation between Ukraine and Russia were an issue of praise whereas trade ties with Moscow, Sweden’s halted NATO bid and contact with the Bashar Assad regime in Syria were deemed negative aspects.

The issue of visa obtainments by Turkish citizens has frustrated Ankara in recent years. The lengthy processing times and a significant increase in rejection rates of Turks’ applications for visas to the 27 Schengen countries have disrupted travel and business plans. The message of the report here is that visa liberalization, which is linked to the remaining chapters, is to remain a long-term goal while it suggested promoting “visa facilitation” in the meantime to address the current bothers.

On the modernization of the customs union, the report urges “addressing trade irritants, to cooperate with us on preventing circumvention of sanctions against Russia and creating a climate conducive to the resumption of Cyprus settlement talks.”

Here, and in the greater EU-Türkiye process, the Cyprus question constitutes a continuing impediment. The two sides have strong disagreements and views on the issue. While Ankara is advocating a two-state system in which the island’s two communities can live peacefully side by side, the EU aims for a bi-communal and bi-zonal federation. The EU is also disturbed by Türkiye’s efforts to push for the recognition of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) on international platforms. Actually, in 2004, the Greek Cypriot administration thwarted the Annan Peace Plan to reunite the island while Türkiye was supporting it. While the Greek Cypriot administration has hindered Türkiye’s process in the EU, Ankara has blocked direct trade with it, as well as direct air and maritime connections, posing a problem within the bloc. Therefore, linking the modernization of the customs union, which dates back to 1995, to the Cyprus issue calls for caution and could result in a further stalemate in cooperation. Nevertheless, the report said that the resumption of talks for Cyprus, instead of solving the issue completely, will be enough for progress. If the bloc does not backtrack from this statement and will be satisfied despite Türkiye promoting a two-state solution in talks, progress in the customs problem is possible.

One further issue of mutual interest has been to address the migration crisis. A new development is that the report suggests the EU supports voluntary and safe returns of Syrians from Türkiye to northern Syria – an issue that Ankara has long been pushing while creating briquette houses and a safe environment in the region. The EU, with the cooperation of the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is ready to take steps in this direction and expresses a political will.

A smart and constructive move of the EU has been to separate the accession talks from discussions on other issues for a mutually beneficial partnership – thereby allowing areas of cooperation not to freeze due to being linked to the difficult membership process.

The process

Although the issue of Türkiye’s EU membership process is separate, it remains a vital part of ties with the EU. The accession bid was an issue of the enlargement policy and country report of Nov. 8.

Türkiye’s long-term goal of full membership was once again strongly showcased by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after his reelection during the NATO meeting in Vilnius in July, where he surprised everyone by linking Sweden’s NATO bid with Türkiye’s bid for the EU.

Türkiye has the longest history with the union and the longest negotiation process. The association agreement was signed in 1964, which is usually regarded as a first step to eventually becoming a candidate. Applying for official candidacy in 1987, Türkiye had to wait until 1999 to be granted the status of a candidate country. For the start of the negotiations, however, Türkiye had to wait for another six years, until 2005, a uniquely long process compared with other candidates. With the Greek Cypriot administration gaining EU membership in 2004, the process was further complicated and stalled in 2010 due to the Cyprus problem. The Greek Cypriots and France rallied for members to block the opening of new chapters. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel put forth the term “privileged partnership” for Türkiye in the same year, raising the possibility of a different engagement with the country other than a full membership process. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy supported it.

In fact, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) had been a great advocate for EU accession in its first years, carrying out several reforms and works to align the country with the bloc. However, growing disagreements and the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt in Türkiye have increased divergences within the 85-million-strong largely Muslim nation. Politics has taken captive relations.

Yet, apart from the bilateral areas of disagreement with Türkiye, other factors also contributed to the stalling of the process. First of all, the EU has started to question whether enlargement is a necessary or even a worthwhile effort for the bloc. Disunity exists among its many members. The Balkans, or what the EU calls the Western Balkans, face similar problems. Secondly, there is a problem of credibility when it comes to candidacies and memberships. Did member states such as Bulgaria, Greece or the Greek Cypriot administration fulfill all the criteria that a country such as Türkiye could not? Is it fair that some members put obstacles in front of Türkiye’s bid, or to that of North Macedonia? Are these obstacles and demands even based on “fundamental EU values”? It should not be forgotten that the bloc took in Cyprus despite being fragmented. Were the criteria fulfilled despite this state of affairs? Are member states such as Poland and Hungary really completely aligned with these stated EU values? Furthermore, the recent and speedy EU candidacy granted to Ukraine and Moldova raises further questions as to what is necessary for such processes. Is it political will or criteria? Was it the war with Russia or EU values that led the process?

Türkiye’s EU membership bid will remain an uncertain prospect for the future. Voices from within the country have also questioned whether membership is a necessity at all, as Ankara started to pursue its own autonomous policies, trying to step up its role as a regional and international player. For the time being, it is vital to pursue constructive engagement and focus on areas of cooperation as suggested by the commission’s report and leave membership as a long-term goal.

Source: Daily Sabah