Written by Robert Ellis
Since the European Union started accession talks with Turkey in October 2005, things have gone slowly. The reform process, which began with the acceptance of Turkey's candidacy in 1999, lost momentum almost as soon as talks began, and the reforms which followed have mostly been concerned with promoting the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government's own Islam-oriented agenda.
Until now only one chapter has been closed out of the 35, where Turkey's legislation has to be adapted to the EU's acquis communautaire. According to one calculation, at this speed it will take 200,000 years before the other chapters are closed, so opponents of Turkey's EU membership need have no concern. But there is a real reason why the process is dragging out.
Before negotiations started, Turkey was obliged to sign an additional protocol to the Ankara Agreement, which extended the customs union to 10 new member states, including Cyprus. Turkey reluctantly signed in July 2005 but the protocol has not yet been ratified by the Turkish parliament. At the same time, Turkey issued a declaration refusing to recognize the sovereignty of the Republic of Cyprus over the entire island.
Two months later, the EU issued a counter-declaration which stated that Turkey's declaration was unilateral and had no legal effect on Turkey's obligations under the protocol. At the EU summit in December 2004, when Turkey was given a starting date for negotiations, Turkey also refused to recognize Cyprus, which caused Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn to exclaim, "We are not carpet dealers in Europe!"
Turkey has since refused to allow Greek-Cyprus shipping and aircraft access to its harbors and airports and has closed its air space to Cyprus-registered aircraft. Consequently, in December 2006, the EU Council decided to freeze the opening of eight chapters relevant to Turkey's restrictions regarding Cyprus. France has blocked four more and Cyprus six, so that a frustrated diplomat remarked, "Soon there won't be any more chapters left to open!"
In an attempt to break this deadlock, Turkey's chief EU negotiator, Egemen Bagis, has come forward with an offer that is worth considering, At a press conference in Brussels, Bagis suggested that once the accession process has been concluded - and all chapters opened, negotiated and closed - all EU member states as well as Turkey should hold referenda on Turkish membership. Because, as Bagis put it, it was uncertain whether Turkey by that time, like Norway, would want to be a member.
In carpet-dealer style, Bagis explained: "In order to complete the negotiations, we have to open the chapters of the negotiations. If you don't open the chapters, you don't close the chapters."
And the chapter Bagis had in mind was the energy chapter. Here he was more direct: "If I cannot open the energy chapter, I'm not really motivated to solve your energy problems."
This thinly veiled threat concerned the Nabucco pipeline project to draw natural gas from the Caspian region and Middle East through Turkey to Europe. Turkey had earlier used its support for the project as a bargaining chip, and now it is being used again. This time the agenda is clearer.
Two years ago, Turkish warships harassed Norwegian vessels searching for oil and gas off the southern coast of Cyprus, and the Cypriot foreign minister accused Turkey of behaving "like the neighborhood bully." When Cyprus as a result blocked the opening of the energy chapter, Bagis commented, "A small sunshine member state obstructs the opening of the certain chapter against the needs of 500 million European citizens."
And in Brussels, Bagis added: "Put yourself in the shoes of a Cypriot. A country of 600,000, looking up at a country of 70 million, with the largest military in Europe, the sixth-largest economy of Europe, the third-largest fastest-growing economy in the world."
Turkey is guilty of doublespeak when it comes to the reunification of Cyprus. Formally Turkey adheres to the UN criteria for a federal partnership, but the Turkish government has repeatedly spoken of two separate populations and two separate states and, three years ago, Turkish President Abdullah Gul even spoke of two religions. Turkey's actual goal is the recognition of a Turkish state in northern Cyprus, which the world community has so far refused to do.
The question is whether Europe is prepared to sacrifice the independence and security of a member state for what it perceives to be in its security interests, just as Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier did with the Sudetenland 72 years ago.
But to return to Bagis's proposal for a referendum, if and when the accession process is completed. It is like the French philosopher Blaise Pascal's "pari" - the wager - on God's existence. If he exists, you win, but if he doesn't exist, you lose nothing.
The same is true here.
In 2005, President Jacques Chirac introduced an amendment to the French constitution that made it mandatory to hold a referendum on all future enlargements for countries whose populations exceeded 5 percent of the EU's overall size. However, this was removed three years later under Nicolas Sarkozy so as not to discriminate against "an allied and friendly country."
In Bulgaria, the nationalist movement VMRO has gathered 330,000 signatures to demand a referendum on Turkey's membership. According to Bulgarian law, if there are half a million signatures, a referendum must be called but because there are over 200,000, the parliament is obliged to debate and vote on the issue.
After France and the Netherlands rejected the EU constitution in 2005, and Ireland the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, the EU's executive is horrified at the thought of listening to popular opinion. Therefore it is striking that it is Turkey that has come forward with the proposal of a referendum to solve the disputed question of the country's EU membership. In this way, it would be possible to offer wholehearted support to a genuine reform process in Turkey in the sure knowledge that in the final instance it will be the peoples involved that decide and not the EU bureaucrats.
Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs and adviser to the Turkey Assessment Group in the European Parliament.