Op-Ed

EU Enlargement: Cyprus Is a Poor Excuse for Turning Away Turkey

Philip H. Gordon

One of the most unfortunate consequences of the French and Dutch rejection of the European Union’s draft constitution in May and June was the negative signal this sent regarding future EU enlargement. With their complaints about immigrants and job competition from low-wage workers, French and Dutch voters seemed to be saying that they did not support last year’s enlargement to 10 new members, let alone future rounds that might extend to the Balkans, Ukraine or Turkey.

The risk now is that Europe’s leaders, instead of courageously making the case for enlargement—one of Europe’s greatest success stories—will begin to pander to voters’ fears and tell the pending candidates for membership that the EU door has closed.

A recent statement by the French prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, looks an awful lot like a step in that direction. Villepin said it was “inconceivable” that Turkey could begin its EU accession negotiations on Oct. 3, as scheduled, unless it first formally recognized Cyprus.

For several years now, the EU has been telling Turkey precisely what it needed to do if it wanted to start the process of joining the EU. In the name of meeting those criteria, Turkey granted cultural and linguistic rights to its Kurdish citizens, reformed its judicial system, adopted a new penal code, abolished the death penalty, cracked down on human rights violations and changed its banking and political party laws.

In December 2004, the EU decided that its conditions had been met and set October 2005 as the start date for accession negotiations. It told Turkey that by that date it would have to extend its customs union with the EU to all the new EU member states, including Cyprus, which Turkey dutifully did on July 29.

Villepin now seems to be imposing a new condition—the recognition of Cyprus even in the absence of a political settlement—which he knows is politically impossible for Turkey to meet. One wonders whether his true goal is to bring about recognition of Cyprus or to score easy points with French voters by scuttling the start of Turkey’s negotiations with the EU.

If anyone needs to adjust their policy toward Cyprus it is the EU, rather than Turkey.

In spring 2004, after all, the EU strongly encouraged Turkish and Greek Cypriots alike to support a UN-sponsored peace plan. The Turkish government in Ankara stood up to its nationalists, military elites and the hard-line Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, and called on Turkish Cypriots to support the plan, which a solid majority of them – 65 percent – did.

The Greek Cypriot government, on the other hand, refused to accept the UN plan, actively campaigned against it despite pleas not to do so (and generous economic incentives) from the EU, and helped secure a massive rejection of the settlement, with more than 75 percent of Greek Cypriots voting no.

The EU enlargement commissioner, Gunther Verheugen, said he felt “taken for a ride” by the Greek Cypriot government. The European Commission vowed to ease the economic isolation of the Turkish Cypriots as a reward for their cooperation. To date, efforts to do so have gone nowhere, all thwarted by the government of a Cyprus that is now in the EU.

While the Turkish government and Turkish Cypriots have nothing to show for their cooperation, the Greek Cypriot rejectionists not only paid no price but were rewarded with EU membership. Now Villepin is proposing that Turkey be the one to make new concessions. One can understand if Ankara is not exactly rushing to support the proposal.

No one should begrudge European leaders’ desire to ensure that EU enlargement decisions have political support. And obviously, Turkish membership would pose enormous challenges because of Turkey’s size, relative poverty, different culture and geography. But having promised to treat the Turkish candidacy like any other, the way for the EU to deal with those issues is to debate them openly and frankly during the long negotiating process, not to try to move the goalposts just before the game begins.

The incentive of EU membership has helped transform Turkey almost beyond recognition over the past decade, in ways that directly serve Europe’s interest. The EU will pay a big price if it provokes an end to a process for the sake of political expediency.