The EU is restarting negotiations with Turkey over membership, but only half-heartedly. Turkish occupation of part of the island of Cyprus remains the biggest obstacle. But Turkey's human rights record doesn't help.
Talks between the European Union and Turkey on Tuesday (05.11.2013), where negotiations over Turkish accession were resumed after a gap of three years, were set to last just one hour: a couple of speeches, a photo and a press conference. It's a symbolic meeting where little of substance was to be discussed.
The topic of the meeting, the consideration of a new "chapter" in accession negotiations, is scarcely controversial. It deals with regional policy and the possibility of EU support for rural areas if Turkey should become a member. This is the 14th of a grand total of 35 chapters which have to be discussed.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle has issued a positive report on Turkish progress, although he recognized deficits in the fields of freedom of expression and religion and the independence of the judiciary. But the violent suppression of demonstrations in May and June led some of the foreign ministers to refuse to take up discussions on more difficult issues, such as human rights or the judicial system. Füle has advised member states to withdraw their objections.
"If we want Turkey to address issues of fundamental freedoms and rights, let's use the most effective instrument we have for that purpose," he said - and that's negotiations.
Accession negotiations began in 2005 after decades of preparation. They've been progressing sluggishly ever since, and none of the chapters in the negotiations has been legally wrapped up. Fourteen chapters are blocked, either by an EU resolution or by a veto by Cyprus, which, although a member of the EU, is not recognized by Turkey.
The northern third of Cyprus has been under Turkish military occupation since 1974. In April 2004, just before Cyprus was due to join the EU, a referendum over a reunification plan drawn up by the United Nations was defeated when the Greek Cypriots of the south voted against it.
This unresolved conflict, says the EU Parliament's rapporteur on Turkey, Ria Oomen-Ruijten, acts as a total brake on the negotiations. Although there are talks between the two ethnic groups in North and South Cyprus, she thinks Turkey ought to put more effort into the process.
Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon, who has been mediating the conflict for years, said last Friday that he was hopeful the two sides would soon put aside their differences of opinion. A new round of talks was to have begun by the end of the October, but negotiators couldn't agree on a joint statement. This week, the UN is planning to continue its efforts to bring the two sides together.
Political scientist Hubert Faustmann, who heads the German Friedrich Ebert political foundation in the Cypriot capital Nicosia, sees multifarious interests at work. Turkey has little reason to give way, but "it could relatively quickly move things forward a lot if it wanted to."
It's also not clear where things are going in relations between the EU and Turkey. "But it's clear that the Cyprus problem is a significant hurdle in the whole story," he said.
Before leaving for the talks in Brussels, the Turkish minister for European affairs, Egemen Bagis, wrote in the Turkish newspaper "Hürriyet" that Turkey had been waiting longer for membership in the EU than any other country. He saw the new chapter as a "late, but positive step," and hoped "that the senseless political blockade of other chapters will be lifted as soon as possible."
As far as the EU is concerned, Turkey itself could make a contribution to this process if it were at least to recognize Cyprus indirectly. In the so-called Ankara Protocol, Turkey committed itself to allowing Cypriot ships and planes into its country. So far, it has not done so.
On Monday, Cypriot's interior minister, Socratis Hasikos, told the "Cyprus Mail" that the government did not want the talks between the two groups on the island to break down. That meant they had to be very careful - and thoroughly prepared. He called on Turkey to show more commitment. The EU, he argued, should also play a role.
'Full membership impossible'
All this does not meet with the approval of the German conservative member of European Parliament, Markus Ferber. He told "Forbes" magazine that he wanted Chancellor Angela Merkel to change direction. Up to now, the German government has always supported the talks, but pointed out that they did not necessarily have to end with full Turkish membership. Ferber says the government should cease to do anything which could move towards accession: Turkey, he says, cannot become a full member.
The German Left party also opposes the continuation of talks, but for different reasons. Sevim Dagdelen, a member of German parliament whose parents immigrated to Germany from Turkey, says, "There's a fatal impression that the government of Prime Minister Erdogan is being rewarded for its policy of moving towards a repressive Islamist state."
No new chapters should be opened, Dagdelen says, so long as police violence and serious human rights abuses continue.