Last year the race to the bottom continued in Turkish-EU relations. While the EU grappled with the deepest crisis in its entire history, Turkey, as the country at the center of a ring of crises, was obliged to devote all its time to managing associated security risks, particularly those from the civil war in Syria. Turkish-EU relations have been witnessing unabated deterioration since 2008, and in 2012 bilateral relations slipped further back until it reached a level where they seemed to existin name but not in substance.
As far as bilateral relations were concerned, the first important event was the “positive agenda” initiative launched by the European Commission. The initiative’s aim was to breathe new life into relations by trying to achieve progress in areas, which did not require the approval of the European Council. But the positive agenda came nowhere near being the stimulus that was intended.
This situation will surprise few analysts working on Turkey-EU relations. It is glaringly obvious that the basic causes of the deadlock in Turkish-EU bilateral relations are not technical but political. So the chances are rather small of initiatives like the positive agenda, something which smacks oftechnocracy, getting anywhere at a time when the political agenda has been built up on the basis of jointly managing and preserving the existing set of balances.Every fresh failure on this issue makes the people who are trying to remain optimistic about the future of relations incline toward despair fortheir task.
A new state in the Cyprus dispute
Another important development in EU-Turkey relations in 2012 was the fact that in the second half of the year, the Greek Cypriot administration of Southern Cyprus held the presidency of the European Union. Turkey had announced in advance that it would not accept the president country during that term as an interlocutor. However in 2012, no political grounds arose which might have required it to be one. Bilateral relations were at such a standstill that not a single new chapter was opened in the negotiations. This situation was, of course, not a novelty confined to 2012. The last occasion a new chapter was opened came during the Spanish presidency in June 2010, and since then none have been opened in the negotiations. Consequently, the Cypriot presidency fell in a year when wars of rhetoric were ongoing but there were no real changes taking place on the ground.
As far as EU-Turkey bilateral relations were concerned however, the year was one, which produced a set of new problems, which may be expected to have long-term repercussions. The main issue came when the Greek Cypriots began to prospect for oil to the south of the island. The Greek Cypriots intended to take advantage of the shifting power balance in international relations as far as Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean were concerned. So they launched prospecting operations for energy, claiming that they were invoking their sovereign rights within an economic and political context supported by Israel. Turkey gave a firm response but this was countered by the EU and thus got nowhere. Stefan Füle, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy, declared “Cyprus is entitled to determine exclusive economic zones and make agreements with third countries, provided it does so in conformity to the Acquis Communitaire and international agreements.” Mr. Füle called on Turkey to remain calm.
The Greek Cypriots engaged in a maneuverof this kind at a time when they occupied the EU presidency and the relevant organs of the Union then endorsed them. This led to a further deterioration in the already poor state of Turkey-EU relations. This development takes place before the Cyprus problem has been solved,which means that the dispute has spread from land into the surrounding seas and this in turn implies that for Turkey in 2013, the Cyprus problem now has an additional dimension and a new front.
The final development which set its mark on the year was the response of the Turkish side to the annual Progress Report which the EU Commission published in October 2012. A leading representative of the AKP tossed the report into a waste paper basket on live television, something, whichmade for an interesting spectacle in that it illustrated just how far the race to the bottom had gone in Turkish-EU relations. In earlier years the Progress Report had always been a statement of appreciation of the reform and the democratization process in Turkey. In 2012 however it was greeted with general disrespect, a situation that sufficed to show just what a low ebb Turkish-EU relations were at.
A new year and fresh hopes
One important factor behind the way in which EU-Turkey relations gradually dropped out of sight in 2012 is the economic crisis currently gripping the EU and absorbing almost all its energy. Because of the crisis, not only did the EU suffer from a lack of vision in its relations with Turkey, but it also failed to react to the Arab Spring and had much less impact upon those events than might have been expected. What was more, the union’s biggest obstacle to giving a resolute joint response to the euro crisis was that inside the EU, various members of the Union were trying to impose their own different strategies on how to cope with it. As Timothy Garton Ash put it, with all the member countries going off in different directions, people started talking not about integration but about breaking up. And so in 2013, the European Union will have to face up to an existential crisis and the need to restructure itself once more.
The significance of this issue for Turkey is that the Union will put its relations with Turkey onto a sound footing until it has responded to the challenges, which have engulfed it. But this does not mean that Turkey should now follow a passive policy of wait and see. Quite the contrary. 2013 is going to be a year in which Turkey will have to closely monitor the ways in which the EU conducts an intensive intellectual debate over its future and how it manages to make a constructive contribution to the discussions going on in Europe as a whole, and more important than anything, how a European Union is being constructed.
*This piece was initially published in Turkish ANALIST Journal on January 2013.