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The second scenario: a natural death

Nicosia. Photo: flickr/LaRezistance
Nicosia. Photo: flickr/LaRezistance

If the talks are unlikely to be suspended, will they die a "natural death" instead? If Turkey's EU accession process does not end with a bang, will it end with a whimper? The tortuously slow pace with which the EU negotiations have progressed, combined with the sense that new obstacles await, has produced fears that the accession process – cue the train metaphor – might soon run out of steam. Then Turkey and the EU "will have nothing left to talk about."

The prospect appears real. The accession negotiations between the EU and candidate countries are subdivided into 35 chapters, each of which corresponds to an area of policy and a body of national law that must be changed to meet EU standards. Since the opening of negotiations in 2005, Turkey has opened 13 chapters. These are Science and Research, Enterprise and Industrial policy, Statistics, Financial Control, Trans-European Networks, Consumer and Health Protection, Company Law, Intellectual Property Rights, Freedom of Movement of Capital, Information Society and Media, Taxation, Environment and Food Safety. Of these, it has closed one: Science and Research. 22 negotiating chapters have yet to be opened.

At the heart of the problem over opening new chapters stands the issue of Cyprus. From 1987, when it was made, until 2004, when Cyprus joined the EU, Turkey's decision to close its ports to Cypriot vessels remained a bilateral issue between Ankara and Nicosia. After the failed attempt at Cypriot reunification in April 2004, a divided Cyprus – a Greek Cypriot south and a Turkish Cypriot north – entered the EU. As a result, the December 2004 EU summit attached a proviso to its decision to open accession negotiations with Turkey: for the talks to get under way, Ankara would first have to extend its customs union with Europe to all the new member states, including Cyprus. Though this did not imply recognition of the Republic of Cyprus, as the Turks repeatedly made clear, it did imply that Turkey would have to open its ports to traffic from Cyprus.

Turkey signed the respective additional protocol to the Ankara Agreement in July 2005. This paved the way for the official launch of accession negotiations in October 2005. However, it did not ratify the protocol. Its ports remained closed to the Republic of Cyprus. In response, on 11 December 2006 the EU Council froze the opening of eight chapters "covering policy areas relevant to Turkey's restrictions as regards the Republic of Cyprus". These were: 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. The Council also decided that no chapter will be provisionally closed until Turkey fully applies the Protocol.

Half a year later, the French government blocked an additional four chapters on the grounds that their opening would hinder French plans for an alternative relationship – i.e. something short of membership – between Turkey and the EU. (The chapters blocked by France were Economic and Monetary Policy; Regional Policy and Coordination of Structural Instruments; Financial and Budgetary Provisions; and Institutions. Most of these chapters are usually dealt with at the very end of the accession talks. France also stated that it intended to block Agriculture and Rural Development, which had already been frozen by the 2006 Council decision.)

Nicolas Sarkozy. Photo: flickr/Downing Street

Finally, on 8 December 2009 Cyprus blocked six more chapters (Freedom of Movement of Workers; Energy; Judiciary and Fundamental Rights; Justice, Freedom and Security; Education and Culture; and Foreign, Security and Defence Policy). Cypriot Foreign Minister Markos Kyprianou declared that Cyprus had "decided to proceed to the introduction of specific terms and preconditions on the negotiation chapters, which are related to each one of Turkey's obligations, as contained in … the December 2006 European Council Conclusions. … Non-fulfilment of the preconditions will not allow the opening of these chapters."

The cumulative effect of these decisions leaves only four chapters to be opened: Public Procurement, Competition Policy, Social Policy and Employment, and Other Issues. (The last of these is usually opened at the very end of the negotiations.)

Anxiety as to what this means for the future of the accession process has since taken hold. In January 2010, Katinka Barysch of the Centre for European Reform wrote of a "looming deadlock in Turkey's EU accession bid", warning that negotiations "would risk dying a slow death as the EU and Turkey simply run out of things to negotiate." As Amanda Paul put it, writing for Today's Zaman, "once the handful of remaining chapters that are not blocked are opened, there will be nothing left and Turkey and the EU will find themselves running into the sand."

But are these fears justified? There can be no doubt that the inability to open chapters is contributing to intense frustration not only among Turkish politicians (and negotiators) but also among those who work on Turkish accession in the EU institutions. But what would actually happen if Turkey and the EU run out of chapters to open by the end of 2011?

While such a scenario would be problematic from a political perspective, it would not mean an end to the accession process. The reason is simple: the process is about much more than the negotiations chapters themselves. There would still be regular meetings at all levels between Turkish and European experts. There would still be regular meetings under the Turkey-EU Association Council. There would still be work on all the (very demanding) chapters already opened. There would still be regular assessments by EU officials for the annual progress report. There would still be significant (and increasing) EU pre-accession assistance.

At the same time there is no reason to assume that the process of adopting EU standards in Turkey would come to a halt. Even if the opening and closing of chapters is placed on hold, progress in the policy areas that these chapters represent can proceed independently. Turkish policy makers are well aware of this. As Chief EU Negotiator Egemen Bagis made clear during the presentation of Turkey's new EU strategy at a conference organised by the Turkish Secretariat-General for EU Affairs (EUSG) in February 2010 in Istanbul:

"Turkey will pursue its work in the framework of all 35 chapters

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