EU-Turkey Membership Deal, Subject to de facto Recognition of Greek Cyprus

EU-Turkey Membership Deal, Subject to de facto Recognition of Greek Cyprus


This report examines the historic agreement taken by European Union leaders at their 16-17 December summit in Brussels to begin accession talks with Turkey after 41 years in Europe’s ante-room. The process will begin on 3 October, 2005 provided Turkey has by then tacitly recognised Cyprus, which joined the EU in May. Turkey invaded the island in 1974 and it has been divided since then. Both the previous Popular Party government (1996-2004) and the current Socialist administration have been among the most active supporters of Turkey’s membership.


EU leaders endorsed the European Commission’s momentous recommendation on 6 October to open accession talks with Turkey (see ARI 152/2004). But they added a condition which threatened to end the marriage before the two sides got to the altar. The negotiations almost broke down as a result of the demand that Ankara formally recognise Cyprus. The situation is surreal because Turkey is set to join a club one of whose members it does not formally recognise. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, rejected the EU’s first proposal and threatened to abandon the summit, apparently backed by the chief of the Turkish armed forces.

Erdogan’s brinkmanship paid off. A compromise was reached under which Turkey agreed to extend its customs union (as of 1996) to include Cyprus before October. This allowed Erdogan to save face at home, particularly among the powerful military, by maintaining that Turkey was not formally recognising Cyprus but making a gesture of goodwill tantamount to recognition (see box below).

Other EU entry terms included open-ended talks, no guarantee of full membership if conditions are not met and the possibility of some safeguards remaining over the migration of workers from Turkey.

The protracted process for membership during which Turkey has to harmonise its laws with EU legislation will last at least 10 years and could be compounded by Austrian and French pledges to hold referendums on Turkish entry at some point in the future. Every EU country has the right to veto the accession of a new member. A 1972 poll in France saw two-thirds of voters backing the UK’s accession to the EU.

As a large (with a population of more than 70 million), poor (with a per capita income of 27% of the EU-25) and Muslim country, Turkey’s membership is in a special category of its own with far-reaching implications for the country and for the Union as a whole.

The Cyprus Issue

Cyprus is one of the world’s longest unresolved disputes. In July 1974 the Cypriot President Archbishop Makarios, a Greek Cypriot, was deposed in a coup backed by Greece’s military junta. Turkey, fearing that its traditional enemy would annexe the island, responded by invading it and enforcing a partition between the north and south of the island. In 1983 the Turkish-held area declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It is recognised only by Turkey.

Turkey won sympathy in March 2004 from the international community because Turkish-Cypriots in the northern part endorsed the UN drafted reunification plan with a 65% majority while more than three-quarters of Greek-Cypriots in the south, already granted EU membership, rejected it. As a result, and to the immense frustration of the UN and the EU over the historic missed opportunity, only the southern part joined the EU on May 1 as both sides had to approve the reunification plan.

Turkey and Turkish-Cypriots, in a volte face, bent over backwards for a power-sharing deal and also opened the border for the first time in 30 years.

But Greek-Cypriots stubbornly resisted any change. Tassos Papadopoulos, the island’s president, threatened in October, ahead of the Brussels summit, to veto Turkey’s EU entry if Turkey did not reduce its 36,000 soldiers in the northern part, allow Cypriot-registered vessels to dock at Turkish ports and end its veto of the island’s bid to join international bodies such as the OECD and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The Greek Cypriot government scuppered the European Commission’s bid in October to end the economic isolation of northern Cyprus by allowing Turkish-Cypriots to trade freely with the world. The Greek Cypriot ‘No’ infuriated the European Commission, which wanted to bring the Turkish community into the economic mainstream.

Erdogan was justifiably angry at Cyprus’ tactics, but was not in a position to turn his back on the issue as Cyprus might then have exercised its right to veto Turkey’s EU entry which needed the approval of all 25 EU countries. Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac brokered a way out of the impasse. Diplomatic recognition is the trump card which Ankara has yet to play in its push to find a permanent solution to the anomalous situation. Turkey is still pressing for the UN plan to be implemented but another formula may have to be found.


By postponing the start of accession talks until October, despite the decision taken at the December 2002 Copenhagen summit to open them “without delay” once the European Council gave the green light, the EU bowed to a French demand. President Jacques Chirac, a strong supporter of Turkey despite fierce opposition within his UMP party, had called for the talks to start after his country’s referendum on the new European Constitution (expected before the end of June), fearing the ‘no’ campaign could harness public opposition to Turkish membership of the EU. ‘If there is a link between Turkey and the constitution, we will lose the referendum’, said Michel Barnier, French foreign minister.

The constitution has to be approved by all 25 EU countries in referendums or parliamentary votes. Spain will be the first EU country to hold a referendum on 20 February. The prospects for a French ‘yes’ now look greater, particularly as 59% of Socialist Party members who voted in an internal ballot backed the treaty, giving a big boost to the European debate.

The EU’s decision to open the door to Turkey was taken against a backdrop of rising hostility to Turkey’s membership in some countries including Spain. In the latest Elcano barometer carried out with CIS, only 44% of those surveyed were in favour of Turkey’s membership, compared with 56% in May. According to the latest Eurobarometer opinion poll, 53% of EU citizens are in favour of further enlargement, but support falls to just over one third in France and Germany. Only 39% of those polled in France and 36% in Germany said they wanted the EU-25 to be expanded. At 28%, support was at its lowest in Austria. The go-ahead for Turkey, however, was preceded by a vote in the European Parliament in favour of accession talks (407 to 262 with 29 abstentions).

Erdogan laid down several red lines, particularly on not extending diplomatic recognition to Cyprus. His political opponents have long been accused him of being soft on the issue and criticised him after the summit for paying too high a price for membership talks. According to the Turkish press, Erdogan told Jan Peter Balkenende, the Dutch prime minister and current holder of the EU’s presidency, in an angry exchange during the summit: ‘You are choosing 600,000 Greek Cypriots over 70 million Turks. I have nothing to reproach them for, but I cannot justify this to my people’. The other red lines were:

• Negotiations must have Turkey’s complete membership as the final aim.
• The decision to start talks must not be conditional on later decisions by EU leaders.
• There should be no special conditions imposed permanently on Turkey.

The other contentious country issue –Armenia– did not raise its head, but will have to be dealt with at some point if only because a country cannot join the EU if it does not have ‘normal’ relations with all its neighbours. The border with Armenia has been closed since 1993 due to the Karabag conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and other issues including historic tensions arising from the 1915-16 massacre (or ‘genocide’) by Turkey of Armenians. Michel Barnier, the French foreign minister, spoke to his country’s gallery before the summit when he urged Turkey to recognise the ‘genocide’. Turkey does not recognise that it was ‘genocide’ and would like an independent commission of historians to examine all the archives and pronounce on the issue.

Erdogan could claim a substantial but not a complete victory, still sufficient, however, to justify being named European of the Year at the European Voice awards shortly before the summit. Erdogan was also nominated as non-European Union citizen of the year. The government pulled out the stops as much as it could before the summit in order to impress the EU. For example, it opened up its national security council, the secretive institution long regarded as Turkey’s main decision-making body. The council briefed diplomats and the media on its operations in an unprecedented display of transparency.

The idea of offering a second-class ‘privileged partnership’ for Turkey, as opposed to the prospect of full membership, demanded by opponents in the run-up to the summit, particularly Germany’s opposition Christian Democrats, did not see the light of day. Erdogan made it very clear that it was all or nothing. EU leaders agreed a form of words which stressed that the aim of Turkey’s accession talks would be full membership, but if that was not possible the country ‘must be anchored in European structures’. This wording is more ambiguous than a reference to ‘privileged partnership’. However, a key phrase about establishing ‘permanent safeguards’ on allowing Turkish workers to settle anywhere in the EU was kept in the text.

The decision to open accession talks followed the recommendation of the European Commission. The main points of its report justifying the start of talks were:

• Conclusion: ‘Turkey has achieved significant legislative progress in many areas… Important progress was made on implementation of political reforms, but these need to be further consolidated and broadened’.
• Political reforms: ‘Political reforms, in line with the priorities in the Accession Partnership, have been introduced by… a series of constitutional and legislative changes adopted over a period of three years (2001-2004)’.
• Economic reforms: ‘Economic stability and predictability have been substantially improved since the 2001 economic crisis. Previously high inflation has come down to historic lows, political interference reduced and the institutional and regulatory framework has been brought closer to international standards’.
• Military reforms: ‘The government has increasingly asserted its control over the military. Although the process of aligning civil-military relations with EU practice is underway, the armed forces in Turkey continue to exercise influence through a series of informal channels’.
• Judicial reforms: ‘The independence and efficiency of the judiciary were strengthened’.
• Human rights: ‘Concerning… the respect of human rights and the exercise of fundamental freedoms, Turkey has acceded to most relevant international and European conventions’.
• Torture: ‘The authorities have adopted a zero tolerance policy towards torture and a number of perpetrators have been punished. Torture is no longer systematic, but numerous cases of ill-treatment, including torture, still continue to occur and further efforts will be required to eradicate such practices’.
• Women’s rights: ‘The situation of women is still unsatisfactory; discrimination and violence against women, including “honour killings”, remain a major problem’.
• Children’s rights: ‘Children’s rights were strengthened, but child labour remains an issue of serious concern’.
• Minority rights: ‘The OSCE [Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe] High Commissioner on National Minorities could play a valuable role in assisting Turkey to move towards full compliance with modern international standards on the treatment of minorities, including the Kurds’.
• Freedom of religion: ‘Although freedom of religious belief is guaranteed by the constitution… non-Muslim religious communities continue to experience problems’.
• Freedom of the press: ‘Notable progress has been made, (but)… journalists, writers and publishers continue to be sentenced for reasons that contravene the standards of the European Court of Human Rights’.

Between this report and the summit the debate on Turkey among opponents and supporters became very intense. The greatest controversy was caused by Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president and president of the European Convention, who once again took up the cudgels against Turkey. It was Giscard who said in 2002 that Turkey was ‘not a European country’ and its membership would spell ‘the end of Europe’ and he followed this up less than a month before the Brussels summit by saying that the proposed new European Constitution (whose drafting he presided over) was ‘not designed to accommodate a power the size of Turkey’.(1) ‘Accession by Turkey, whenever it took place, would make the country the major decision-maker in the European Union, and would change the nature of the European project’.

Giscard’s remarks provoked many comments, including a letter published in the Financial Times by Ana de Palacio, a former Spanish Foreign Minister and a member of the Praesidium of the European Convention. She criticised Giscard for failing ‘to bring much reason to the debate over Turkey’ and suggested that he might have had in mind the problems that the double-majority issue would cause for Turkey when he wrote it into the new constitution.

Under a key provision of the new constitution (which has to be approved by all countries in referendums or parliamentary votes), known as double-majority voting, Turkey would automatically be accorded a strong position in EU decision-making. Under the constitution all decisions that do not need to be made unanimously –many matters, especially foreign policy and taxation, still do– must be backed by at least 65% of the EU’s population and 55% of member states. Put another way, any country would need support from 35% of the EU population and 45% of member states to block a proposal it did not like. Turkey’s population (80 million in 2015, the earliest date when it would join the EU assuming all goes well, roughly the same as Germany’s) gives it considerable power, but even if it is the most populous country it would not be able to block any decisions alone; it would need the populations of at least two other big countries to meet the required 35% mark.

In another letter in the FT, Stephen Wall, Tony Blair’s former EU adviser, took Giscard to task for saying in his article that all Turkey was offered in its 1963 associate member agreement with the European Community was membership of the Common Market. This was incorrect, he said, and cited the text of the agreement: ‘As soon as the operation of the agreement has advanced far enough to justify envisaging full acceptance by Turkey of the obligations arising out of the treaty establishing the Community, the contracting parties shall examine the possibility of the accession of Turkey to the Community’. Giscard conveniently forgot this.

EU membership is of huge importance for the economy for three main reasons. First, it will make the Customs Union (as of 1996) irreversible because as long as Turkey remains outside the EU bloc, it can be reversed by either party. Far from wiping out some Turkish businesses, as they feared at the onset, the Customs Union has been very good for Turkish exports and companies have stood their ground in the face of increased imports. For example, exports of automotive components have risen from US$155 million in 1995 to around US$5 billion. Secondly, the risk premium on public debt will fall (this has already started), both easing the pressure on public finances and improving the performance of the economy. Thirdly, inflows of foreign direct investment will probably surge from their current very low levels, leading to higher growth rates and lower unemployment. Turkey’s stock of investment is lower today than it was in the 1980s; annual inflows have rarely reached more than US$1 billion (Spain and Ireland both attracted over US$25 billion in 2003). The Istanbul Stock Exchange hit a record high the day the EU made its announcement.

Some analysts ambitiously forecast that Turkey’s per capita income could increase over the next 10 years from around €4,000 to €14,000 in purchasing power parity terms, spurred by the country’s clearer horizon.

The Turkish economy has been something of a star in the last year after recovering from its 2001 crisis. The economy is by far the fastest growing in Europe and the inflation rate has fallen to single figures for the first time since 1972. The IMF recognised Turkey’s progress two days before the start of the Brussels EU summit when it announced a new three-year US$10 billion stand-by agreement which, according to Rodrigo Rato, the IMF’s managing director, ‘should allow Turkey to exit from further IMF financial support’.

As a result of finally getting inflation under control, on 1 January Turkey will remove six noughts from the face value of the lira: one unit of the local currency will then be worth what one million are now (€0.53), welcome news for tourists and foreign investors who have to mentally wrestle with strings of zeros and carry wads of notes.

Yet the economy remains vulnerable. Turkey has massive debts including US$23 billion owed to the IMF and billions borrowed via the international bond markets. At around 80% of GDP, Turkey’s gross debt is double that of the new EU member status. Turkey’s debts have largely arisen from its efforts to push through banking reform after a run on the banks in 2001 caused the country’s devastating recession.

Spain, with its experience of having spent eight years negotiating its much easier EU membership (between 1978 and 1986), worked behind the scenes to encourage Turkish politicians to keep their cool in the face of those countries, like Cyprus, using the summit as an open agenda to settle old scores and stay focused on the overriding goal of membership.

Spain could well be a useful model for Turkey when the talks start. The same fears about impoverished workers flooding the European labour market existed about Spain 20 years ago as are now being made about Turkey. An often overlooked point in the debate about a possible surge in Turkish immigrants to the EU is that, like Spain, Turkey will itself become a magnet for immigrants when it is a full EU member. Just as no one in Spain could have predicted 20 years ago that today there would be an estimated more than one million North Africans in Spain, so too it is quite likely that a richer Turkey will attract workers from Iran, Iraq, Syria and other poorer countries with whom it shares a border.


Turkey has achieved impressive reforms on all fronts since it was declared an EU candidate in 1999. The long and uncertain process that now opens will be more wrenching.

William Chislett
Writer, author of the Elcano Royal Institute’s Working Paper on Turkey (
DT 17/2004), an analysis of the European Commission’s recommendation on accession talks with Turkey (ARI 152/2004).