Local actors to step in for Turkey’s EU journey

Local actors to step in for Turkey’s EU journey

BRUSSELS - A new project aims at bringing local actors into the picture for Turkey’s European Union accession bid that has largely remained under the government’s monopoly so far. Another goal is to make sure the general public is aware of what full membership would mean for Turkey

A new project funded by the European Union began Tuesday to increase the general public’s involvement and awareness in Turkey’s EU membership process.

Part of the project’s aim is to bring the ongoing accession bid out from under the cloak of a government monopoly on the process and bring local actors into the picture. It also aims to make sure the general public is aware of what full membership would mean for Turkey.

"The debate is going on in Ankara or in Istanbul and on the state-to-state axis; whereas the ownership of local and regional actors is a must for progress in negotiations with the EU," Atila Eralp, director of the Center for European Studies, or CES, of the Middle East Technical University, told an international conference in Brussels.

CES-led project "ACCESS-TR" has been deemed eligible to utilize funds allocated by the EU Commission. The project also brings together partners from three Anatolian universities in Gaziantep, Antalya and Samsun and will be implemented in cooperation with the Trans-European Policy Studies Association, or TEPSA, a research network made up of leading study centers dealing with EU affairs throughout Europe.

Turkey's CES is not yet a member of TEPSA but it is expected to join the European research network in June when the next EU presidency term presidency begins.

Benefits vs. challenges

The start-up conference, which included Turkey’s leading representatives in Brussels as well as key figures who once served in the EU Commission's Enlargement Cabinet, focused on the benefits and challenges of possible Turkish accession.

"Common interest is the key word in Turkish-EU relations," said Turkey’s permanent representative to the EU, Volkan Bozkır. He stressed Turkey’s full membership would be a win-win situation for both parties, which are bound to work together. "The EU cannot ignore Turkey if it wants to act as an influential party. Some crises cannot be handled without Turkey," he said. The Turkish military's experience stemming from the fight against terrorism is also an advantage for the bloc, according to the official.

The pattern of Turkish-EU relations has been characterized by ups and downs since the formal opening of accession negotiations in October 2005. Brussels froze eight chapters in talks due to the Cyprus row linked to Ankara's refusal to open its sea and air ports to EU-member Greek Cyprus.

"Despite the frozen chapters, Turkey should continue with its own timetable," said Bozkır. "We'll close all the chapters by 2013 when the EU will decide on its next budget."

European circles, on the other hand, expressed "short-term pessimism" in Turkish-EU talks due to the domestic political turbulence in Turkey and the financial crisis, which never provides a good atmosphere for enlargement.

Andrew Duff, vice-chairman of the European Parliament's EU-Turkey Delegation, said the "fluctuations in the Turkish Parliament" made it impossible to reconcile on the bid for membership.

"I am still depressed by the bipartisan approach toward Turkey's membership in the EU," he said.

'Ergenekon' probe sparks fear

An ongoing investigation into the alleged Ergenekon gang accused of toppling the government is another source of anxiety among European quarters. "We only want to see justice," said an official, adding that detainees, including journalists being charged and then released, were a cause of fear.

The Kurdish and Cyprus problems seem to be further problems Turkey needs to resolve. According to Duff, no solution can be found to the Cyprus dispute without concessions made by Ankara such as troop pullout and granting trade privileges to the Greek Cypriots. He said the EU Commission has announced its intention to assist to sort out the problem alongside the UN.

Turkey, however, opposes any EU interference, arguing the bloc lost its neutrality after the membership of Greek Cyprus in May 2004.

"Any proposal to be laid down by the EU will be taken as a Greek Cypriot proposal," said Ambassador Bozkır. "This is like a soccer game where the referee is wearing the uniform of one of the two teams."

The Cyprus problem is one of the major obstacles before collaboration between the EU and NATO. The French decision to drop its self-exclusion from NATO and return to the alliance's military wing could be further chance for Turkey to prove itself a constructive partner of the EU and the United States, said European officials.

"Turkey must seize the chance," one official said.
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