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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Slanted reporting on Turkey's stalled EU bid

I will continue on the theme of slanted media reporting of Turkey-EU relations, simply because there's a lot to cover. Don't get me wrong - most of the reporting is good and even the bad usually contains bits and pieces of good information. But a growing number of news stories appear to be converging around a simple explanation for the lack of progress in Turkey's accession negotiations, and I think that this explanation is one-sided. (Fortunately, it is not yet a consensus, and I will quote reports with a different take to emphasize that there is another side to the story.)

But let me give just one recent example, posted yesterday on the South East European Times website (find the article here). (The SET, btw, is sponsored by the US European Command.) The article sums up recent developments concerning Croatia's progress toward accession, and then turns to Turkey. Here is what the piece says about Turkey, in its entirety:

Turkey, which also began its membership talks in October 2005, has been moving at a much slower pace in the negotiation process. It was able to open only one negotiating chapter this year, bringing the total to 13, and has closed only one since the start of its negotiations with Brussels.
The main reasons for the slow pace are Turkey's sluggish reform progress, as well as its refusal to open its airports and ports to traffic from EU member Cyprus. As a result, negotiations on eight of the chapters have been frozen since late 2006.
"Turkey will be able to accelerate the pace of negotiations by advancing in the fulfilment of benchmarks, meeting the requirements of the negotiating framework and by respecting its contractual obligations towards the EU," the document adopted last week said.
So what's the problem with this story? Many would agree with the assertion that the pace of reform in Turkey has slowed (although the Sep 12 referendum on constitutional reform is one recent and significant exception, and one could mention others), and it is also reasonable to note that Turkey's refusal to open its ports to traffic from Cyprus is a major stumbling block. The problem is that this depiction only gives one side of the story: the fault lies entirely at Turkey's feet.

But this is not so. The most significant omission is the failure to mention that negotiations have stalled because several EU countries are blocking the opening of negotiating chapters for reasons other than the two issues mentioned in the SET piece. France, Austria, and Germany are, to varying degrees, hostile to the very idea of Turkish accession, as is large swaths of the population in most EU member states. As a recent piece in The Guardian put it:
Austria is viscerally opposed to Turkey joining the EU, with the far right prospering on anti-Muslim campaigning and raising ancient historical traumas such as the Ottoman Turkish sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683. 
[Austrian Chancellor and Social Democratic leader] Faymann has promised a referendum on the issue should Ankara complete negotiations, which opened five years ago but are at a standstill because of Greek Cypriot vetoes and Franco-German hostility.
Austria's Faymann is not alone - leading politicians in several member states have made the unusual declaration that the accession of a new member to the Union in this particular case would require referenda or votes in their national parliaments, clearly either shying from taking the fight or betting on a single 'no' that could spell the end of Turkey's EU ambitions. Remaining politicians have by and large refrained from any sustained effort at trying to push domestic public opinion by making the argument in favor of Turkish accession.

All of this amounts to a number of serious roadblocks in Turkey's path toward accession (to appropriate a common metaphor in this context), and failing to mention it is to bias the picture since it clearly has other layers than just any purported lack of progress on reforms in Turkey or on the Cyprus issue.

As for the latter issue, there is another side there as well. The Turks rightly point out that the EU has its own promises to live up to; in particular, the promise made in the aftermath of the Cypriot rejection of Kofi Annan's peace plan back in 2004. In this spectacular strategic blunder, the Southern Cypriots were allowed to vote down Annan's plan while cruising toward an EU membership that would give them veto power over Turkish EU accession. The mistaken assumption behind the unconditional offer to the Greek Cypriots was precisely the same one-sided view that I hope will not gain traction in mainstream media: that only the Turkish side was to blame for the lack of progress.

The world, and certainly this issue, is too complicated for any such one-dimensional narratives.

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