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22nd May 2022

EU treads carefully and gives Turkey talks one more chance

Brussels' efforts to keep the Turkey EU talks on track by not recommending whether to freeze negotiations over the Cyprus issue has sparked further speculation on what a possible "train crash" in Ankara's accession process could look like.

The European Commission in a key Turkey report on Wednesday (8 November) condemned Turkey's continuing blocking of trade from EU member state Cyprus, but did not spell out the consequences if Ankara fails to lift the blockade before the deadline at the end of this year.

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"The commission will make relevant recommendations ahead of the European Council, if Turkey has not fulfilled its obligations," the report said referring to a meeting of EU leaders in December.

Explaining why the commission has not spoken out yet - a move which was reportedly urged by the Cypriot, French and Greek commissioners - enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn said "We could ask ourselves why would we suddenly act like a bull in a China shop."

"The EU, its member states and Turkey should focus their energy in achieving a solution," he added referring to ongoing efforts by the Finnish EU presidency which he said he would not like to hinder.

Finland is currently engaged in intense diplomatic mediation between Turkey and Cyprus, promoting a deal which would see the end of the economic isolation of Turkish Cypriots in return for Ankara extending a customs agreement to Cyprus.

The commissioner said he "fully supports the Finnish formula" and declined to speculate on what would happen if Turkey does not open its ports and airports to traffic from Cyprus before the end of the year.

Two scenarios

But he reminded Ankara that an EU statement - adopted just before the Turks started the accession talks in October 2005 - mentions possible consequences for trade-related parts of the negotiations as well as an effect on the "overall" process.

Diplomats and MEPs speculate on two possible scenarios in the event of the absence of a deal before the December summit.

One scenario is a freeze in the opening of only some of the chapters in Turkey's entry negotiations related to trade, customs and the free movement of goods, with a French diplomat saying this would be "the least" that would happen.

Another, more far-reaching possibility is a suspension of the entire negotiations – with Cyprus repeatedly saying it is ready to veto the opening or closing of any new chapters.

Dutch centre-right MEP and drafter of a recent European Parliament report on Turkey, Camiel Eurlings, said that any of the two scenarios would constitute a "dramatic development."

Another Dutch MEP specialised in Turkey, Green member Joost Lagendijk, said it is unclear how many chapters are related to customs and trade, with Cyprus believing its is 32, the UK mentioning three while counting "eight or nine" himself.

He went on to say that even in the event of a partial freeze of the talks, the rest of the negotiating chapters would likely be negatively affected in some way.

"There would be some chapters frozen," he said. "But the real question will be: what happens to the rest?"

'Train has to remain on track'

Meanwhile, Mr Rehn criticised some European politicians who used the crisis over Cyprus to promote their opposition to Turkish membership.

"Those who continue to question Turkey's EU membership goal create a vicious circle," he said stressing that "it is essential that the train remains on track."

Although the commission on Wednesday published a highly critical report on Turkey's membership preparations, the commissioner appeared to defend Ankara's political reform record.

"In the public debate, one may get the impression that Turkey is backtracking on the reforms. This is not the case. Turkey has continued political reforms, even though their pace has slowed down during last year," he said.

But he urged Ankara to speed up efforts particularly on ensuring free speech, with the Turkish government last weekend signalling it is ready to revise the notorious article 301 of the penal code which penalises insulting "Turkishness".

"We expect that words lead to deeds and without delay," said Mr Rehn.

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