Europe in the World

Turkey vs EU Ambition: Implementation of Reforms and Cyprus are the Answer

7 November 2003
Amanda Paul (Senior Policy Analyst)


On 5 November, the European Commission unveiled its annual Regular Report on Turkey’s progress towards EU accession. The 140 page paper assesses Turkey’s progress towards meeting the Copenhagen Criteria.  It praises recent reforms, but adds that their positive effects have been limited due to slow implementation.  The paper also states that while a resolution of the Cyprus issue is not a precondition for beginning accession talks, it warns that a failure to reach a resolution could constitute a “serious obstacle”.  This report is the penultimate one before December 2004, when the EU will decide whether or not to open membership talks with Turkey.

Erdogan – A Fresh Start

A year ago Turkish voters, fed up with economic hardships and previous coalition governments, handed a crushing defeat to the country’s political establishment.  Out went the corrupt and mismanaged traditional parties of the past and in came the new, Islam-rooted, Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its charismatic leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Right from the beginning, Erdogan promised that EU membership would be at the top of his list of priorities.  European leaders were initially very sceptical of what to expect but since the Copenhagen European Council of December 2002, when Turkey was given the date of December 2004 to carry out the reforms necessary to begin EU accession talks, Ankara has astonished these same heads of state and government  with the pace and audacity with which it has carried out the reforms required to meet the Copenhagen Criteria.  More reforms have been carried out in the past 12 months than in the last 40 years!  The Turkish Parliament has adopted several packages of far-reaching reforms.  The most recent, and seventh reform package contains critical reforms on the role of the National Security Council (MGK) which will reduce the dominant role of the military in domestic affairs and give it a more consultative function - therefore giving a whole new face to the body that was created to protect the secular status of Turkey – something which previous government have never had the courage to do.

All these reforms are aimed at bringing Turkey’s laws up to European standards on issues such as minority rights and human rights.  Other reforms include the abolition of the death penalty, a variety of measures paving the way for Kurdish language broadcasting and education and the scrapping of the controversial article used to prosecute those accused of spreading sepaerist propaganda. 

Not all the reforms have been welcomed with open arms.  This was clearly demonstrated with the Sixth Reform Package.  This package combined further liberalization measures directed at Kurdish speaking citizens with a relaxation of the strict anti-terror law.  It was submitted to the Turkish Grand National Assembly on 12 June, and was approved on 19 June.  However, it was then vetoed by Turkish President Ahmet Sezer on the grounds that the provision relating to the removal of the anti-terror act would “create important dangers to the existence of the Turkish state” and returned to the government who swiftly resubmitted it (without any amendments) to the TGNA who approved it again and retuned it to Sezer who subsequently approved it (as he is obliged to do on a second submission).  There has also been discomfort expressed over the seventh harmonisation package by certain circles in the military and from the CHP (Republican Peoples Party) the only opposition party in Parliament and the party that was founded by Atatürk – who therefore feel a duty to protect his legacy.

The National Security Council

The National Security Council (NSC) which brings together the President, Prime Minister, Senior Cabinet Ministers and the Army’s top brass, has regulated Turkish political life since its creation in the early 1960’s, shortly after the military coup that overthrew Prime Minister Adnan Menderes.  It has regularly been used by the army to impose its will on the government and has toppled four governments over the last 43 years.

The EU has long pressed Turkey to curb the influence of its military in politics. These new reforms reduce the military’s hold over the policy-making and transform the NSC into an advisory body, with no executive powers.  The number of times that the Council meets will be limited, and a civilian (rather than a General) will head its secretariat.  Further parliamentary scrutiny of military expenses will also be introduced.  Responsibility for monitoring and coordinating the implementation of the NSC recommendations will go to one of the deputy prime ministers

These sudden changes have had a mixed response from the military staff.  On the positive side, Chief of the Military Staff, Hilmi Ozkok, who was involved in negotiating these reforms with the government, and who persuaded Erdogan to put off the appointment of a civilian to head the secretariat for a further year, has sent the message that the military is prepared to accept this new role as a step towards EU membership. 

More negatively, however, former Secretary General of the NSC General Tuncer Kilinç, (he retired in August 2003), along with Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul have accused Erdogan of undermining the armed forces and trying to change the secular regime in Turkey.  The Turkish daily Cümhürriyet reported a military official speaking on condition of anonymity “forces that will not allow any change in the secular structure of Turkey will act together”.  Such sentiments show that certain factions of the armed forces will not give in easily.  They will, however, have to be diplomatic with words as joining the EU has overwhelming support from the Turkish people. 

From Reform to Implementation

Turkey now has less than 12 months to implement these new laws.  This will not be an easy task though Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül has stated that this would be carried by the end of April 2004.  Unfortunately, there are still bureaucrats and security officials inclined to disregard the changes to the laws and continue repressive actions.  The government will therefore have to take a determined stand to see the reforms fully implemented.  Judges will also have to be trained to interpret the laws in a democratic manner and stop trying to persecute dissidents as terrorists.

The government has set up a “Reform Supervision Board” to supervise the implementation of these reforms.  The Board will have representatives from the Secretariat-General for EU Affairs and relevant state institutions that deal with human rights and will report to the Cabinet on a monthly basis.

Positives and Negatives in the Commission Report

Over the past few months, Enlargement Commission Günter Verheugen, has on several occasions responded very favourably to Turkey’s reform packages stating that  “the passage of the reforms through parliament shows the strong determination of the Turkish government to get in shape for EU membership”..  He has, however, also stressed that Ankara must speed up the implementation of its reforms as, in his opinion, Turkey was still sending “mixed messages” on how it was fulfillilng the Copenhagen Criteria.  He has also been very vocal on the topic of Cyprus pointing out on several occasions that the government should speed up its efforts on the Cyprus issue.  It is therefore fair to see that the Commissions report very much reflects the thinking of Verheugen. It reports that Ankara’s achievements over the past 12 months have been “impressive” especially regarding the ambitious series of reforms it has undertaken and that significant steps to adapt the Copenhagen Criteria have been made demonstrating the dedication of the government.  Following the publication of the report Jack Straw, British Foreign Secretary, remarked that the Regular Report demonstrated the remarkable political progress Turkey had made and that the British government remains strongly committed to Turkeys membership.

On a more negative note, however, the report also criticises the government in several areas including: slow and irregular implementation of reforms, remaining deficiencies in the structure of the military as representatives remain on the High Audio-Visual Board (RTUK) and the High Education Board (YOK); incoherence in the use of the provisions of the Turkish Penal Code (TSK) regarding freedom of expression; noting that while torture has dramatically declined, there are still reports about specific cases which are of concern, delays in the implementation of judgement of the European Court of Human Rights; a further strengthening of the Judiciary is required as well as it being made more independent.

Turkish Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gül, called these criticisms objective and that the points made were true in general acknowledging that the reforms have be slow but that the government was committed to the journey it had begun.

Cyprus – “A fair solution in Cyprus should take into consideration realities on the Island” – Tayyip Recep Erdogan

After publication of the Commission report there was much attention on Cyprus.  Despite intense last-minute lobbying by Ankara, the Commission refused to alter the sentence about Turkish membership possibly facing a “serious obstacle” if Cyprus is not reunited before May 2004, when Greek Cyprus is due to enter the EU. Commissioner Verheugen pointed out that the Cyprus issue is not a prerequisite, but a political message to Turkey to start spending some serious time on the matter.  Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission backed this up by pointing out that Turkey should work towards reaching a settlement quickly in order to prevent Cyprus becoming an obstacle to its own aspirations.

It is not really that surprising that the Commission included these remarks in the report.  Leaders right across the board in the EU have been speaking along these lines for quite sometime.  Portuguese President, Jorge Sampaio, on a visit to Turkey in September stated “full compliance with the Copenhagen Criteria makes Turkey eligible to open accession talks but resolution of the Cyprus problem will help” and Greek Prime Minister, Costas Simitis went one step further by warning that without progress on the Cyprus and Aegean issues, his country would not approve starting Turkey’s accession talks with the European Union at the end of 2004.  Ankara now faces this reality – the EU has put its cards on the table.  It is determined to pressurize Turkey into reaching a permanent solution.

If Prime Minister Erdogan, who has regularly stated that he does not consider “no-solution to be a solution” were able to bring about a settlement allowing a united Cyprus to join the EU next May, he would certainly improve Turkey’s chances of securing an early negotiating date.  Cyprus will almost certainly be the biggest test that Turkey has to face.  Prime Minister Erdogan recently stated “those who have proven unable for 40 years to resolve the island’s issues should not expect an 11 month old Ankara government to solve this problem”.  However, it looks more and more like this is what must be done if Turkey wants to start accession talks.

Unfortunately, the issue presently seems to be stuck in a deadlock, with the only movement being seen in the self proclaimed “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC) domestic policy.  In the run-up to the TRNC parliamentary elections set for December 14, three opposition parties have joined forces to declare that if they win a majority in Parliament, they will remove Rauf Denktas, the leader (and self proclaimed President) of the Turkish Cypriot Community, from his post as negotiator and put Kofi Annan’s UN backed plan back on the table and do all they can in order to enable a united Cyprus to join the EU in May 2004.  Unfortunately, however, recent opinion polls show that the conservative parties, who support Denktas, despite a substantive decline in their standing, remain strong enough to retain their parliamentary majority with 42.9% of the vote.  The leftist block, which has been supportive of the UN document, is currently making up around 32.4%.

The wily Rauf Denktas, who, along with Fidel Castro of Cuba, is the world’s longest serving “President” having described the UN Plan as “dead” is now in the process of preparing his own alternative solution plan which he will officially announce shortly.  Denktas believes that if he were to accept the Annan Plan, as it was presented to him in Hague in February of this year, Cyprus would become a Greek Cypriot island within the next ten years.  He believes that the Cyprus issue should be negotiated based on the realities of the island – two peoples, two democracies and two states.  He has also stated many times that there is no conflict between himself and Ankara on this aspect. 

Although it would seem that the Turkish government is not as close to Denktas as some of its predecessors have been, it would be foolish to believe, as some people have be speculating, that they will turn their backs literally over-night on this island (and Denktas who is greatly loved by the majority of Turks) which Turkey has always seen as being strategically important.  Only last month, Ankara served a diplomatic warning to the United States, aimed in particular at Thomas Weston, the Special US coordinator for Cyprus, who has recently begun a whirlwind “all the stops must be pulled out to unite Cyprus” tour of the region before the 14 December elections, that it should stop trying to portray Denktas as a “villain” and as the sole obstacle for peace on Cyprus.  Ankara has become annoyed with efforts aimed at depicting Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot leader of trying to influence the electorate in Northern Cyprus.

Even though pressure is being put on Turkey by the international community to make a greater effort to resolve the Cypriot issue it is highly unlikely that there will be any movement from until after the December elections although it is interesting to note that Turkey has recently “put on ice” a controversial customs union with the Northern Cyprus because it could harm their EU bid.  Post-election, whatever the result, it is clear that Ankara wants to find a way recommence the talks within the framework of the Annan Plan even though it faces opposition on this from the military and the CHP party who have always been long-term supporters of Denktas and who believe that Turkey should wait until it receives the green light from the EU before “handing-over” Cyprus.

If a settlement cannot be reached before May 2004, the Cyprus file will be closed on the basis of the status quo.  It would be much easier for Turkey to give ground over Cyprus if the EU could give it some clear and positive signals concerning the opening of talks.  This position in itself clearly demonstrates a distinct lack of trust in the EU from the Turks.

Some fear that a rejection of Turkey’s EU case because of the Cyprus problem could lead to a nationalist backlash in Turkey, and put an end to the historic reform process that has been sold to Turks largely as a ticket to joining the EU.  This would in turn jeopardize the stability of the whole region once again.

Reactions of Turkey on the Cyprus Issue

Commenting on the report’s warning on Cyprus, Prime Minister Erdogan said that Turkey wanted a permanent resolution on Cyprus and that Ankara’s Cyprus policy favoured a fair a permanent settlement on the island.  Foreign Minister Gül added that the issue was not a political critererion for the Union but pledged unwavering effort and commitment to solve the islands issues by May 2004.  How they are going to do this remains to be seen.

Former Foreign Minister, Ismail Cem, commented that the start of Turkey's talks for European Union ascension would be a dream if no solution was found to the Cyprus problem going on to say that "The Ruling Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) grave mistakes and lack of knowledge have led to the current situation."  The YTP leader said that Turkey's position within the EU and its future depends on a solution. The process should be separate from the Cyprus issue, he said, adding that now Turkey's EU bid depends on a solution to the Cyprus issue.

The Turkish media, not surprisingly, was not conservative in its remarks; The Hurriyet states “The EU Monster �If we are to join let us join honourably, let them not crush us.  The sale of Cyprus is on the agenda here”.  Yeni Safak reports said Turkey should wake up those who were struck with the paradox of ‘I want to join the EU and I entrust Cyprus to Denktas’. Both cannot go together.  If Turkey is sincere on its demand for EU membership, it has to solve the Cyprus issue and for that it has to end it by negotiatiating the Annan plan honestly and reasonably.  There is no other option. 

And finally, one of Turkey’s most famous and respected journalists (both in Turkey and the EU), Mehmet Ali Birand, writing in Posta had this to say:  On the one hand, they tell us to solve the Cyprus issue by 2003, but on the other hand they say “do not use the Cyprus issue to blackmail us”.  The European Commission is suspicious about Turkey over the Cyprus issue.  Likewise we are suspicious about them and think that they will blackmail us on Cyprus.


It is very clear that Turkey has a lot of work to do in order to be able get a date to start talks next December.  There is no doubt, however, that Ankara is committed to implementing these crucial reforms and turning the country around.  Many people are skeptical about Turkey’s ability to do this in the short time remaining so it is vital that they stay committed to their goal in order to ensure sure that the Commission next Regular Report in November 2004 is positive.

On Cyprus they have to be practical and face the realities that they are now confronted with.  It is vital that the government acts rapidly and formulates a plan of action to move the issue forward and out of the current deadlock.  They must seriously start focusing on how to deal with the hardline conservatives in Ankara and adapt a common and consistent policy concerning Rauf Denktas. 

It was the greatest wish of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, that Turkey would be accepted as an integral part of Europe.  Since his death in 1938 Turkey has traveled a considerable distance along that road and with a good compass and some improved map-reading skills it would seem that Turkey is well on its way to doing just that.

In this programme


Programme Team

Head of Europe in the World programme and Senior Fellow

Giovanni Grevi

Researcher in EU energy and climate policy, Institute of European Studies, Free University of Brussels

Marco Giuli

Senior Policy Analysts

Paul Ivan
Amanda Paul

Junior Policy Analyst

Ivano di Carlo

Programme Assistant

Marco Zeiss