Turkey has been trying to join the 27-member European Union since 2005, hampered by widespread skepticism of a large Muslim-majority member as well as its own internal political difficulties. But as German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the Turkish capital of Ankara on Monday, hope was (however faintly) in the air.
For one thing, Merkel’s rhetoric was encouraging. The center-right leader has long been skeptical of Turkey achieving full membership (in contrast to her predecessor, Social Democrat Gerard Schroeder). Instead, Merkel has tended to hype the idea of a “privileged partnership.” But she didn’t use that term on Monday, instead going out of her way to signal agreement with France that one of the 35 chapters necessary to ascend to the E.U. — that dealing with Turkey’s regional aid — be reopened.
What’s more, the Merkel visit came just as there was new progress in the Turkish government’s peace talks with Kurdish rebels. Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party that is at the heart of the 28-year insurgency, will use the Kurdish New Year next month as occasion to call a ceasefire. With Western leaders watching, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a chance to demonstrate the capacity for internal dialogue and peaceful resolution of conflict with a minority group that is the trademark of any modern, robustly democratic nation.
To be sure, Merkel did not explicitly call for Turkey to join the E.U. so much as to reopen negotiations on its status. And over a dozen of the chapters required for membership continue to be held up by objections from France and Cyprus, the island nation divided between Turkish and Greek control (Turkey does not recognize the Greek south, and is the only nation that recognizes the independence of the north). The so-called “Ankara Protocol” would expand Turkey’s customs agreement with the rest of the E.U. to include the Greek Cypriot south, though P.M. Erdogan insisted at his press conference with Merkel on Monday that Turkey “can sign the Ankara Protocol only if the visa dialogue process with the EU is signed at the same time,” referring to his longstanding demand that Turkish citizens be allowed to travel without visas throughout the continent. So disputes remain. But a process that was assumed dead just a few months ago is once again showing definite signs of life. And as long as Turkey’s economy continues to expand (it has recovered from the financial crisis of the last decade faster than many of neighbors), it seems likely the pressure will mount on recalcitrant European leaders to bring the one-time “sick man of Europe” into the fold.