Turkey's relations with EU face deeper strains

A European Union progress report is the most definitive sign yet of a possible 'train crash.'

It's no secret that Turkey's recent engagement with the European Union has not boded well for a happy marriage between the Muslim majority country and its Western neighbors.

EU diplomats have been warning for months of an impending "train crash" in the membership negotiations with Turkey. The country's stalling political reform process, dozens of court cases threatening free speech, and Ankara's continuing refusal to open up its airports and harbors to vessels from EU member Cyprus have raised concern in European capitals.

But the release Wednesday of an EU progress report sharply criticizing Turkey's reform slowdown and threatening unspecified consequences if it doesn't open its ports to Cyprus by mid-December is the most definitive signal yet of a further deterioration in Turkish-European relations, observers say.

"The report represents a very important point, politically, as the trains are heading towards a crash," says Kirsty Hughes, a London-based European affairs analyst.

While both sides appear to remain committed to ongoing negotiations, any eventual fallout could have significant implications not only for Turkey and the EU but the broader region as well. As the Turkish public becomes increasingly opposed to EU membership, analysts are warning that such a turn could hurt the democratization process under way in Turkey and reduce Europe's prospects for developing better relations with other Middle Eastern countries.

"Only with Turkey as a member can the EU be a player in the Middle East. Without Turkey, it has no say, no leverage, in Middle East issues," says Soner Cagaptay, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

At a summit next month, the 25-member body is expected to agree to freeze its negotiations with Turkey in part, if not entirely. German chancellor Andrea Merkel has already issued a stern warning, telling a German newspaper that if Ankara refuses to open up its ports to Cypriot trade – something it has promised to do as part of the deal to begin the negotiations – "the EU accession talks cannot continue in this fashion."

But diplomats and analysts in Turkey are not optimistic about the prospects of Ankara breaking out of its reform slump anytime soon. A wave of anti-Western nationalism has been washing over Turkey, fueled by a perception that the EU has been one-sided on the Cyprus issue and by European moves on the Armenian issue, such as a recent law passed by the lower house of the French parliament that makes it a crime to deny that the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottomans were a genocide.

According to a June poll by the Pew Research Center, Turkish support for the EU has fallen to 35 percent, down from almost 80 percent three years ago.

With Turkey's parliamentary elections a year away, observers here believe that little progress will happen on the EU front as political parties try to play up their nationalist credentials and distance themselves from the currently unpopular membership talks.

"The public sees the EU on many issues as a threat to the unitary state. Today it is a dividing issue," says Suat Kiniklioglu, executive director of the German Marshall Fund's Turkey office. "Certainly the military and the secularists have turned against the EU and for them a negative [EU progress] report would be welcomed, since it would mean a slowdown in the negotiations."

There have been suggestions that Turkey's government, run by the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, might lead Turkey toward a closer alliance with the Islamic world. But Ioannis Grigoriadis, a professor of political science at Istanbul's Isik University, says that Turkey's growing nationalism is looking inward rather than eastward.

"It could end up with a Turkey that is very introverted and self-reliant," he says.

A distancing from the EU, says Mr. Grigoriadis, could ultimately hurt the process of democratization in Turkey. "The EU acts as both an anchor and as a trigger, on the one hand pushing for change from the outside, but also protecting the steps already made," he says.

It could also complicate Europe's efforts to integrate its growing Muslim community.

"For [Europe's Muslims], this is a test of whether they are European. They are the people who are following this very closely," Mr. Cagaptay says.

Despite the criticism from Brussels and the nationalist mood in Turkey, there are indications that both sides are working to reach some sort of compromise before the upcoming EU summit. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently expressed a willingness to amend Article 301, a controversial law limiting free speech, and there are also efforts to work out an interim deal on the Cyprus issue.

"I think all parties will try until the last moment to prevent this train crash," says Joost Lagendijk, who heads the European Parliament delegation to the joint EU-Turkey parliamentary committee. "A real crisis would be if both parties would be looking for a way out [of the negotiations], and I don't think that's the case right now."

Some observers are also suggesting that, beyond compromise, what may also be needed is a change in the way the EU approaches Turkey. Kemal Dervis, Turkey's former economy minister and the current head of the United Nations Development Programme, recently said that the EU's constant pressure for reform will only continue to alienate Turks.

Isik University's Grigoriadis say that the EU needs to reel Turkey in slowly. "You can't pull the line too tight, or it will break," he says.

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