The European Commission (EC) recommended on Wednesday (November 29th) a partial suspension of Turkey’s EU membership talks, over the country’s refusal to open its ports and airports to ships and planes from Cyprus.
Under the proposal, the EU would not open talks on eight of the 35 negotiating chapters with Ankara until the EC has confirmed that it has fulfilled its obligations under an agreement with the bloc. The sectors to be frozen are: free movement of goods, right of establishment and freedom to provide services, financial services, agriculture and rural development, fisheries, transport policy, customs union, and external relations.
Several months before the official launch of its accession talks, Turkey signed a protocol extending its 1963 customs union agreement with the EU to all members, including Cyprus. Ankara has been insisting, however, that the EU first make good on its pledge to ease the economic isolation of the Turkish Cypriot community in the island’s north, occupied by Turkey since a military invasion in 1974.
The EC’s decision came two days after Finland, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, announced that its efforts to broker a compromise failed. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, a strong supporter of Turkey’s EU bid, said the negotiations with Ankara would continue, “at slower pace”. He stressed, however, that the EC’s recommendations did not imply a “train crash” in the country’s accession process.
The EC also recommended on Wednesday that chapters where technical preparations have been completed should continue to be opened. However, no chapter would be provisionally closed until Turkey has met its obligations under the customs union protocol.
A final decision on whether to suspend negotiations on the proposed chapters will be made either by EU foreign ministers during a meeting on December 11th, or by the leaders of the 25 member nations when they meet for a two-day summit on December 14th.
Turkey could still score a “golden goal,” if it lifts its trade curbs on Cyprus within the next two weeks, said Rehn.
But Ali Babacan, Turkey’s chief negotiator with the EU, made clear on Wednesday that Ankara has no such plans.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan initially described the EC recommendations as “unacceptable”, but later toned down his remarks. “We could have advanced much faster, but if the EU insists on its decision, the process will slow down a bit.”
Speaking at a news conference upon his return from the NATO summit in Riga, he added that Turkey’s “road will continue to be the road to the EU,” and that his country remains determined.
The EC’s recommendations, announced a week earlier than expected, triggered mixed reactions among EU leaders.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Jacques Chirac and Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen were among those who voiced support for the decision.
“The commission proposal is a strong signal that the Ankara [customs union] protocol has to be accepted by Turkey,” said Merkel, whose country will take over the EU presidency on January 1st.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose country — along with Spain and Sweden — is among the most adamant supporters of Turkey’s EU bid, said the commission was making a major strategic mistake.
“In Europe we face a division today between short-term political considerations … and the long-term strategic interest of Europe and the wider world, which is to have Turkey inside the EU,” he said.
The Cypriot government, meanwhile, criticised the EC for what it described as a “softly-softly” approach.
“The government is not pleased with the decision because we believe that it does not offer any form of pressure on Turkey to comply with its obligations,” Greek Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos said on Wednesday.