When the Turkish Parliament passed a far-reaching reform package last month, it was the latest sign that the new government is serious about joining the European Union.
Since Turkey’s election in November 2002, the Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party has passed measures that curb the role of the Turkish military in political life, enhance freedom of expression and strengthen minority and civil rights.
European leaders have applauded the government’s willingness to implement measures that would have seemed impossible only a year or two ago, such as those on Kurdish language instruction or reducing the role of the military-led National Security Council.
If Turkey continues down its current path, the EU’s external affairs commissioner, Gunther Verheugen, has said, it will be difficult for the EU not to begin accession negotiations with Ankara at the end of 2004, when an EU summit meeting is scheduled to address the issue.
Beginning formal EU accession negotiations with Turkey would be an historic step, fulfilling a longstanding dream of many Turks to anchor the country solidly in the West. Turks know that no country that has started accession negotiations has failed to complete them, and thus that a decision next year could finally set them on the path toward their goal.
The dark cloud on this horizon is Cyprus. Technically, resolution of the island’s 30-year-old division is not a prerequisite for Turkey’s EU membership. Politically, however, it is almost impossible to imagine the EU agreeing to start the process so long as there is no deal.
Not only would Greece block it on behalf of the Greek Cypriots, but, as of May 2004, Cyprus itself—currently represented by the Greek Cypriot government on the island—will be an EU member with a vote and a veto.
The need to resolve the Cyprus conflict thus extends well beyond the fate of the less than one million people on the island. It has major implications for the future of nearly 70 million Turks, Europe’s relations with the Muslim world, and the entire Mediterranean region.
The clock is ticking on this issue. The United Nations, together with the EU and the United States, presented a creative compromise plan last year for political reconciliation on the island.
The Annan plan for a new confederation made many concessions to Turkish Cypriot aspirations, including a rotating presidency, the requirement for both communities to agree to key legislation, permission for Turkish troops to remain on the island and limits on the numbers of Greek Cypriots who could move back to homes abandoned in the Turkish north. But the Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, backed by hard-liners in Ankara, refused the deal, and the new Turkish government, which supported a compromise, was not strong enough to oblige him to accept it.
Denktash, who faces increasing popular resistance and parliamentary elections this December, has said that he considers the Annan plan “dead,” and that he will not sign anything like it without major revisions. Greek Cypriot leaders say they still want a deal, but with their own EU membership secured, they are unlikely to make any major concessions.
Meanwhile, Turkish Cypriots have started demonstrating in the street in favor of the Annan plan and acquiring Greek Cypriot passports in the hope of becoming EU citizens before the membership door closes. A rejection of Turkey’s EU case because of the Cyprus problem could lead to a nationalist backlash in Turkey, and an end to the historic reform process that has been sold to Turks largely as a ticket to joining the EU.
Faced with this looming disaster, the United States and the European Union should begin a final attempt to break the deadlock. When President George W. Bush meets with his EU counterparts at the UN General Assembly in New York later this month, they should host a mini summit meeting with Turkey, Greece and the two Cypriot sides.
The message would be that intensive final negotiations on the Annan plan must begin immediately, and that the parties have until December to reach a deal—ample time, given the detailed work already done on the plan and the narrowness of many of the differences that divide the parties.
If Denktash and his hard-line allies finally say yes, the United States and EU will provide substantial economic aid to northern Cyprus, Turkish Cypriots will join the EU as part of a unified island next year and Turkey’s own accession prospects will be given a major boost.
When Bush attends the NATO summit meeting in Istanbul in May 2004, he would participate in a historic ceremony marking a unified Cyprus’s entry into the EU and Turkey’s close ties with the West—a perfect tonic after the recent strains in U.S.-Turkish relations.
And if Denktash still says no? Turkish Cypriots will remain isolated and poor, Turkish accession talks will be rejected, and Denktash can explain to his people and the entire region why such an historic opportunity was lost.