Monday, January 19, 2009

Turkey Jump Starting its EU Bid?

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in Brussels on a mission to save Turkey’s European Union bid. It’s almost hard to believe, but this is Erdogan’s first visit to the EU’s headquarters since 2004, when Turkey started its arduous accession talks with the bloc.

Since then, after a flurry of activity, Turkey’s EU reform process seems to have almost come to a halt, which makes Erdogan’s Brussels visit all the more significant. According to many analysts, 2009 is going to be a make or break year for Ankara’s EU hopes. The unresolved Cyprus issue, in particular, looms large as a major problem for Ankara this year. (For more, take a look at the International Crisis Group’s recent report on the subject).

"Our accession to the EU is a top priority for Turkey," Erdogan was quoted by Reuters as saying in Brussels. "I hope that 2009 is going to be a very different year. For us there is no alternative to becoming a member," he added.

Those are encouraging words, but EU officials will most likely wait for action from the Turkish government. One important step that Ankara has taken is the appointment of Egemen Bagis as Turkey’s first full-time EU negotiator. Until now, the job had been the responsibility of foreign minister Ali Babacan, who simply wasn’t able to devote the kind of time needed for the membership bid.

The choice of Bagis is an interesting, though somewhat surprising, one. An advisor to Erdogan on foreign affairs, he studied and lived for an extended period in the United States, making him more familiar with Washington than with Brussels. Within the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Bagis’s role – in terms of foreign relations – has been less of a policy maker and more of a liaison to the west, responsible for sending out soothing words when Erdogan starts breathing fire. He’s good at selling Turkey (or, at least, the AKP) to western audiences, but let’s hope he was appointed to be more than Ankara’s P.R. man in Brussels. The optimistic view of his appointment is that, as a close advisor of Erdogan’s, he has the prime minister’s ear, which might allow for EU matters to remain a priority.

For more, take a look at this article in the Financial Times. Reuters, meanwhile, has an interesting timeline of Turkey's "long and winding" road towards the EU.

(Photo: Pedestrians in Istanbul's Taksim Square walk by a European Union information office. Photo by Yigal Schleifer)

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