Turkey's EU bid no longer viable

After years of insisting its bid to become a member of the EU was on track, Turkey admits it no longer hopes to be taken aboard by the EU in 2014.

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ISTANBUL // After years of insisting that its bid to become a member of the European Union in the middle of the next decade is on track despite numerous difficulties, setbacks and delays, Turkey has finally admitted that it no longer hopes to be taken aboard by the EU in 2014. "I read here and there: 2013, 2014 is the date for full membership," Egemen Bagis, Ankara's EU negotiator and his country's first government minister charged with EU affairs, said last week. "I don't find that very realistic."

For decades, Turkey has tried to become part of what used to be the European Community and has developed into the EU today. Membership negotiations started in 2005 but have progressed slowly, partly because of the Cyprus problem, partly because of resistance among EU member states against a Turkish membership, and partly because Turkey has lost its reformist zeal that stunned the Europeans in the years between 2002 and 2005.

Two years ago, Ankara unveiled a reform programme aimed at making the country ready for EU membership by 2013 or 2014. But speaking at a forum about EU affairs organised by the Independent Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association, or Musiad, an association of religiously conservative businessmen that is close to the government of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mr Bagis said Turkey had wasted time in the first 45 of its 50 years of trying to become a member of Europe. "If we look at talking, there was a lot of talk," Mr Bagis said. "But if we look back at what kind of work had been done, not a lot was accomplished."

EU officials have called on Turkey to return to the path of vigorous reforms, but so far there have been little more than promises from Ankara that new reform projects will be put on the agenda soon. Mr Bagis admitted that his country had lost its reform drive. "I regard the EU as Turkey's dietician," the minister said. "To lead a healthy life, we all know we have to take care what we eat and drink, we have to do sports, but it is always more fun to eat ice-cream in front of the television."

Mr Bagis' statement came as Mr Erdogan voiced fresh complaints about the position of Germany and France, two of the most important EU members, towards the Turkish membership bid. Both the German chancellor Angela Merkel and the French president Nicolas Sarkozy have said they are against admitting Turkey to the EU and in favour of offering Ankara special ties with the EU below the membership threshold.

"I expect respect towards my country," Mr Erdogan told the NTV news channel in an interview last week. He said EU regulations did not foresee the "privileged partnership" that Mrs Merkel would like to offer Turkey as an alternative to membership. Mr Erdogan was even more critical of Mr Sarkozy, who has repeatedly said he does not want Turkey in the EU and who has ordered French diplomats to block parts of Turkey's membership talks in Brussels. "Sooner or later, Mr Sarkozy will regret what he has done," Mr Erdogan said, adding he may cancel a planned visit to France and a "Turkey Day" of festivities in France.

Ankara has not done enough lately to convince its critics in Europe that Turkey really wants to join the EU, some observers say. "Much has been said but not much has been done," the Milliyet daily quoted Cem Ozdemir, a German politician of Turkish descent and co-leader of the German Green Party as saying. As an example for what Ankara should do, Mr Ozdemir said that if Turkey took a step to solve the problems on the divided island of Cyprus, its EU negotiations would receive a boost.

"The road map is clear," wrote Hasan Cemal, a columnist for Milliyet. "What is not clear is if there is the political will." Mr Bagis, the EU minister, blamed parliament and the opposition in Ankara for the slowdown. Work on several reform bills has been held up by bitter arguments between government and opposition deputies in the chamber. "Our bureaucracy is working, but there are hundreds of bills piling up in parliament," Mr Bagis told the Musiad forum, according to excerpts from Mr Bagis's speech posted on the organisation's website.

"It does not seem possible to speed up our reforms in the EU process at a time when parliament is not able to pass more bills." In another sign that Turkey's reform programme has been put on the backburner, Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, this week reached an agreement with the opposition to send parliament into summer recess on July 1. Only days before the agreement was hammered out, Mr Erdogan said parliament would work through the month of July to complete several laws. In Turkey, the parliamentary summer recess usually lasts two months.

With the recess coming up, the chances for Turkey to pass key legislation to push its EU bid forward are slim. This year, Mr Erdogan said his party would start work on a comprehensive constitutional reform project once local elections in March were over, thereby fulfilling a long-standing EU demand. There has been no sign of that project so far. tseibert@thenational.ae