The decision of the European Union's foreign ministers to freeze part of Turkey's accession negotiations this week is probably the least draconian action that could be expected under the circumstances. The "circumstances" being Turkey's refusal to open up its trade to southern Cyprus and a report criticising Turkey on its slowness to improve some of its illiberal practices.
These are real questions, of course. But the handling of the negotiations has given rise to the very real suspicion that what is at stake is not the terms of accession but the growing opposition to the whole idea of bringing in a Muslim country to an essentially Christian grouping. Turkey is well within its rights to feel strongly aggrieved by this. Its application to join was made in good faith and has been accepted by Europe's leadership in a succession of summits. By any standards, it has made huge strides in meeting the terms laid down.
No one is saying that these terms do not still pose considerable obstacles. Having made the grievous error of allowing Cyprus in without first making sure it agreed to a UN reunification package (unsurprisingly, once Greek Cyprus was in, it turned the deal down), the EU is now saddled with a member determined to pursue one particular agenda and with the power to veto negotiations to get its way.
Cyprus demands that Turkey open up all its ports to trade with the island. Turkey argues that it will only do so when - and it was promised this - steps are taken to end the isolation of northern Cyprus. To give up its negotiating card with nothing in return would be a betrayal of the Turkish Cypriots in the interests of a deal it fears the EU is not pursuing in good faith anyway.
It's an impasse but not an impossible one. The first thing the leaders of the EU should do when they meet in Helsinki at the end of this week is to re-iterate their wish for Turkey's eventual membership and their willingness to help it get there. Nothing can progress so long as there are doubts about the EU's sincerity.
The second task it should undertake is a real and concerted effort to push a solution to the Cyprus question. The major countries of the EU must make it clear to Athens as well as Nicosia that they will not accept the whole union being held hostage to this sectoral interest. Even in terms of their own self interest, it can't be right that an agreement with northern Cyprus and their hopes for restitution of property be endlessly delayed. By putting only some of the negotiations on hold and refraining from deadlines, the EU has left the door open for further talks. The real fear is that, if you do not make progress now, the prospect of Turkish entry will fall and with it an historic opportunity for Europe as a whole.Reuse content