As if times weren't tough enough for the EU, the next six months could add more turbulence as the Greek-Cypriot-led divided island of Cyprus takes over the EU presidency - much to Turkey's chagrin.
"At a time when the EU faces economic challenges and continuing instability in the Middle East, the relationship with Turkey matters more than ever," said 16 European foreign ministers in a joint article published in the Hürriyet Daily News earlier this week. "The EU and Turkey should be partners in shaping events," they stressed. "Working together we can achieve more and send a stronger message to encourage transformation, [in the Western Balkans, Southern Caucasus, Middle East and North Africa]."
The strong messag came at a critical time. With the Greek-led Republic of Cyprus taking over the rotating presidency of the EU on July 1st, Turkey is planning to boycott the presidency.
Last September, Turkey warned that it would freeze relations with the EU if the Republic of Cyprus were given the EU presidency in 2012. "If the peace negotiations there [Cyprus] are not conclusive, and the EU gives its rotating presidency to Greek Cyprus, the real crisis will be between Turkey and the EU," Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay was quoted as saying by the Turkish press.
Ten months on, Ankara is now signaling a more measured response, but still the move is expected to deal a blow to Turkey's already troubled EU membership process. Turkish diplomats are saying that the boycott will be limited to the presidency and they will not end political dialogue and cooperation with other European institutions.
"During the next six months, we will continue our relations with the European Commission, European Council, European Parliament and the External Relations Service," Turkey's ambassador to the EU, Selim Yenel, told DW. "But we will have no relations with the presidency," he went on to say. "If they will invite us to a meeting, if they are going to chair this meeting, or they invite us to a meeting in their part of the Cyprus, we will not participate at these meetings," Ambassador Yenel said.
Turkey does not officially recognize the Republic of Cyprus and Ankara disputes Cyprus's claim to be the sole legitimate representative of the whole island. The last major international attempt toward reunification of the island, the so-called Annan Plan, failed in 2004. Following intense negotiations, Greek Cypriots rejected the proposed solution at the polls, even as Turkish Cypriots gave their thumbs-up.
Cyprus was divided in 1974 when Turkey sent in its military after a Greek-inspired coup in Nicosia that aimed to unite the island with Greece. Ankara recognizes the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, but has no diplomatic relations with the internationally recognized Greek-led Republic of Cyprus. For decades, there have been failed efforts to reunite the island. A plan proposed by then UN chief Kofi Annan was overwhelmingly rejected by the Greek side and approved by the Turkish north in a 2004 referendum.
Some observers feel that Turkey's attempt to increase the political pressure on the Greek Cypriot government and its European partners could do more harm than good and undermine Turkey's EU accession talks.
Turkey is the longest-waiting country on the EU's accession list. Talks began in 2005 but the process has ground virtually to a halt, due to the unresolved Cyprus problem. Fourteen out of 35 chapters of the membership negotiations are currently blocked as a result and during the coming six months no progress is expected.
Turkish diplomats say they will focus on their domestic homework to open new chapters in membership talks, starting from 2013 and they will continue with reforms.
"Turkey will always have relations with the EU. We have never given up our bid for membership," Turkish ambassador Yenel said. "We will continue to patiently work toward membership. We believe that Turkey's membership will benefit both sides. Hopefully, we will overcome the obstacles," he stressed.
According to Turkish diplomats, due to changes in the Lisbon Treaty, the rotating presidency has less of a role in shaping EU policies and Turkey's boycott will not undermine Turkey's political dialogue and cooperation with the EU institutions and member states.
But observers caution that the coming six months may lead to new problems. Late last year Cyprus's oil and natural gas exploration in the East Mediterranean raised tensions between Turkey and Cyprus.
Sixteen EU foreign ministers renewed their call on Turkey and Cyprus to overcome their differences in a joint article published on Thursday. "Turkey's constructive contribution to a Cyprus settlement and its willingness to open its ports and airports to Cypriot vessels remain key," they said in a statement that refrained from making strong demands on Ankara. "Progress is also needed on the important issue of EU/NATO co-operation, where we encourage Turkey to show flexibility," they wrote.
Turkey blames the Greek Cypriots for the unsatisfactory pace of the ongoing UN-led settlement talks regarding the island. Turkish diplomats say that the EU's move to grant full membership to Cyprus, before a settlement in 2004, led to further reluctance on the part of the Greek Cypriots to make concessions on a settlement with the Turkish side. But critics say Turkey's decades-long policy of supporting a two-state solution and its reluctance for unification is also responsible for the current deadlock.
Turkey acknowledges now that it has to actively support a solution in Cyprus to clear the path for its EU membership bid. "Cyprus (problem) is the biggest obstacle before us. We have focused on the settlement negotiations for the island to overcome this problem," Ambassador Yenel said. "We believe that a comprehensive settlement in Cyprus is in everybody's interest. It was our hope to have a united Cyprus assuming the EU Presidency in July 2012," he went on to say. "But unfortunately we couldn't get any positive signals from the Greek Cypriot side."
Ankara says now it is time for the Greek Cypriots to take the first step.
"So far we did not see even a single gesture from the Greek Cypriot side," Ambassador Yenel said. "If there is an expectation for a gesture this time it should come from them. They have an advantageous position on the island. It is now their turn to make a gesture."
Author: Ayhan Simsek
Editor: Rob Mudge