By MARTTI AHTISAARI
— Turkey’s aspiration to join the European Union motivated it to make a series of remarkable transformations between 2000 and 2005.
Ankara amended a third of the country’s authoritarian Constitution. Its legislators enacted human rights laws in line with international standards. It abolished the death penalty. It provided greater legal protections for women. It introduced new safeguards against torture and reformed the penal system. It scrapped draconian restrictions on freedom of expression, association and the media.
The Turkish armed forces have stepped further back from the dominant role they had played in the country’s political life since the time of its founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Turkish-Kurdish tensions have eased. Turks have begun to debate the Armenian question openly.
Turkey has also made significant positive input as a regional power, contributing troops for international peacekeeping missions and supporting talks to settle the Cyprus conflict in 2004. Let us also not forget the significant cooling of animosities between Greece and Turkey.
Yet despite so promising a start, the process of Turkey’s accession to the E.U. has lost significant momentum since 2005. Negative statements and actions by E.U. leaders have played a key role in discouraging Turkey. These have undermined Ankara’s will to reform and have fueled resentment. Popular support in Turkey for E.U. membership continues to wane. Frustrated leaders in Turkey lament that the E.U. would reject Turkey’s accession even if Ankara implements all the prerequisite reforms and meets all other preconditions.
Europe’s wavering on Turkey’s E.U. accession is jeopardizing the E.U.’s credibility and threatening to tarnish its good image. How can European leaders be trusted if they continue to go back on their word, stalling, and perhaps scuttling, a process that began a decade ago with so much promise, has produced so many positive effects, and holds such potential for the future?
During my three decades in mediating conflicts around the globe, I have learned that only rarely, perhaps once in a generation, do the political planets align for dramatic solutions. (In the past few years just such an alignment appeared over Northern Ireland.)
A promising alignment is now appearing over a land of key importance for both the E.U. and Turkey: Cyprus. Ongoing talks between the leaders of the island’s Greek and Turkish communities offer the best and probably the last chance to avoid an indefinite partition of the island. A settlement on Cyprus — something that both Turkey and the E.U. can contribute to achieving — would breathe new life into the accession negotiations between Turkey and the E.U. and hasten the day when both sides can gain full advantage from each other.
Strengthening the relationship between Turkey and the E.U. through accession negotiations offers a clear opportunity to serve the E.U.’s interests in energy security and to bolster stability both in the Middle East and the South Caucasus.
If Turkey were to meet the remaining requirements for membership, the country would enjoy a more open society. It would be more comfortable in its own diversity. It would demonstrate that Islam and democracy are fully compatible. Such a Turkey would be a beacon to East and West alike. Its integration would help galvanize the E.U. to embrace its own diversity and enhance its position in the world as a trusted partner.
On a cold Helsinki day in December 1999, E.U. leaders declared Turkey to be “a candidate state destined to join the Union on the basis of the same criteria as applied to the other candidate states.” Today, almost 10 years later, Turkey’s destiny seems far less certain.
What is at stake is not just Turkey’s future, but also the credibility of the European Union as an honest broker.
Martti Ahtisaari, a former president of Finland and Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 2008, is chairman of the Independent Commission on Turkey.