A slap in the face of Turkey

[updated] In his (Swedish language) blog, the always well-informed Bengt Karlsson points to a Presidency document outlining proposals on the start of accession negotiations with Turkey. It was leaked to the press yesterday, possibly in order to test the water. Its most remarkable contents:

  • Turkey has to recognise Cyprus;
  • The accession negotiations could be suspended if requested by at least one third of the Member States;
  • No Turkish membership before 2014;
  • No talks on membership before there is agreement on the 2014-2020 financial perspectives;
  • The EU should consider “permanent safeguard clauses, notably in the area of the free movement of persons”;

Unlike Karlsson, however, I do not regard the possibility of suspending talks at the request of a minority of Member States as the most significant part of the proposals. Membership negotiations could always be suspended, at least effectively, even at the request of a single Member State: EU accession equates, after all, to a change of the Treaties, which requires the unanimous consent of all Member States.

Much more significant, in my view, are the last two elements of the list: No talks on Turkish membership before there is agreement on the 2014-2020 seven-years’ budget means that Turkey could get no significant say on EU spending during the first years of its membership. It also suggests the current EU members are not prepared to increase the Union’s budget when Turkey becomes a member, which amounts to a decision to significantly decrease the budget in relative terms.

Worse, however, is the restriction on the free movement of persons. This would mean that Turks, permanently, do not get the same rights as other EU citizens, even after Turkish accession to the EU. It would effectively make them second-rate citizens, as even citizens from the ten new Member States will see restrictions on their free movement lifted after a transition period.

Over at A Fistful of Euros, Edward remains positive about the situation:

Since, come 2014, I believe that the principal labour market disruptions the EU member states will be facing will come from shortages of young workers, and since I doubt that by this time Turkey will still be an important origin source of would be migrants (since its own demography is stabilising), I think this safeguard will remain hollow. As such, my feeling is that if this kind of condition is what is necessary to get the negotiations rolling, then better accept it and get on with things.

These are very reasonable points, and I hope he is right. But as things stand now I do not share his optimism. We must, of course, understand the difficult situation government leaders find themselves in: On the one hand they are aware of their own long-term promise to Turkey that it would eventually become an EU-member, and they realise (one should hope) how important integration of a mostly muslim state into the EU is for geo-political and even internal EU security. On the other hand, they must also be aware of the hostility of many of their voters towards all things European in general, and Turkish accession in particular – a hostility that has particular relevance right now, during the run-up to various referenda on the new EU Constitution.

Therefore, governments who want to win both the Constitution and the accession of Turkey have to navigate very carefully. One way could be to take away voter concerns, by making a credible case for Turkey, or by making clear that Turkey will have to fulfil strict, and strictly enforced, conditions before membership, that it will take many years before Turkey has fulfilled those conditions, that negotiations will be suspended as soon as its reform process is not progressing fast enough, and that voters will get the last word on Turkish accession. They could also try to undo the unfortunate simultaneity of the decision on Turkish accession negotiations and the Constitution referenda, by avoiding to take any irreversible decisions on Turkey or at least by postponing such decisions until the Constitution is safe and secure.

I am not so sure, however, if the Dutch Presidency proposals fit into that strategy. The permanent free movement restriction, in particular, seems more in line with the “association, not integration” idea that is gaining popularity among Europe’s christian-democrats and conservatives (which dominate many of its governments), and much less with a sincere wish for full Turkish membership.

The Presidency is proposing to start negotiations with a slap in the face of the negotiation partner. That is not a good sign. I really hope the EU Council on 16-17 December is wise enough to reject or amend these proposals.

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