Early last week, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had reason to be optimistic. During a meeting in Ankara, Pope Benedict XVI said he was in favor of Turkey joining the European Union. This reversed an opinion he had delivered previously as a Cardinal, saying the move would be "a grave error against history." But the good news was short-lived. Just days after the Pope's remarks, Olli Rehn, the E.U.'s Commissioner for Enlargement, recommended that the E.U. suspend a portion of Turkey's membership talks just 13 months after they began. The reason: Turkey's continued unwillingness to open its ports to ships from the Greek-controlled half of the disputed island of Cyprus.
Greek Cypriot shipping has long been a contentious issue in Turkey's E.U. debate. Several months ago, Rehn warned that Turkish obstinacy about it could lead to a "train wreck." With no change in Turkish policy since then, Rehn has suggested that the European Commission, the 25-member executive body of the European Union, vote to suspend eight of the 35 tracks (called chapters) of the negotiations aimed at bringing Turkish institutions up to E.U. standards. Britain, Spain, Italy and other countries that have long supported Turkish accession argued for a milder penalty, while France pushed for as many as 17 chapters to be frozen.
If E.U. leaders accept Rehn's recommendations, Turkey's E.U. accession train may not be wrecked, but it will have slowed considerably. After initially calling the reprimand "unacceptable," Erdogan said Turkey would continue "in the E.U. direction," while officials in Brussels insisted they were still committed to Turkey's inclusion. "Turkey is not fulfilling all its obligations and so there must be some consequences," said Commission President José Manuel Barroso after the announcement. But, he added, "We don't want to close the door on Turkey."
That door may be more difficult to prop open than Barroso realizes. Prominent politicians across Europe have been expressing a growing skepticism about Turkey's candidacy ever since talks began. Nicolas Sarkozy, French Interior Minister and presidential candidate, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both said they are against full E.U. membership. Harsher critics, such as Bavarian Governor Edmund Stoiber, have condemned Turkey's press restrictions and limited rights for minorities not as problems to be overcome, but as proof that Turkey is unsuitable for the European club. "Turkey is not a European state, and to admit its accession into the Union would change the character of Europe," Stoiber declared last week.
In Turkey, meanwhile, a different kind of skepticism is taking root. When Turkey began membership talks, 64% of Turks in one poll said they were in favor of joining the E.U. By this month that number had dropped to 32%. Nationalist parties critical of the government's pro-E.U. policies are gaining strength. Support for the country's two right-wing Euro-skeptic opposition parties has grown to 26% from about 17% four years ago. If they capture that much of the vote in next year's election, they could force a coalition with Erdogan's AK Party.
It's not going to be easy to sort this out. Erdogan's government has pushed through reforms to improve the rights of the Kurdish minority and strengthen civilian control of the military measures that helped convince the E.U. to open membership talks in the first place. But he seems unwilling to back down on Cyprus. Erdogan has agreed to lift Turkey's restrictions on Greek Cypriot ships and planes only if the E.U. follows through on its promises to ease trade restrictions on the Turkish Cypriot–controlled part of the island.
Turkish troops have occupied the northern half of the island since invading in 1974 in response to an increase in fighting between Greek and Turkish Cypriots sparked by an Athens-backed coup. But the international community has never recognized the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus that Ankara established, and it has existed in near total isolation ever since. "We will not make a move without it being matched," a Turkish Foreign Ministry official told Time last week. Finland, which currently holds the presidency of the E.U., tried to avert the current crisis by proposing that one Turkish Cypriot port be opened in exchange for handing an abandoned tourist resort back to the Greek Cypriots. The initiative collapsed last week when each side refused to make concessions that would weaken its bargaining power in future talks.
For now, Turkey and the E.U. seem to be at an impasse. "Turkey is a key player in many regions. We carry out strategic obligations as peacekeepers in these regions. But the E.U. is disregarding all of that to focus on one issue alone," says the Turkish Foreign Ministry official. "They are holding a strategic vision of the future hostage to the Cyprus issue." European Commission officials counter that Turkey needs to be shown that rules are rules. "The E.U. is a community of law," says Rehn. "Failure to meet them cannot remain without consequences. We need to make this clear."
What's not clear, however, is whether stepping up the pressure on Ankara will produce the E.U.'s desired effect. Turkey could withdraw from the accession process altogether, although that seems unlikely for now. Rehn, who's fond of train metaphors, recently trotted out another one. Turkey's E.U. accession is not a Eurostar, he said, but the Orient Express. It may not get there too quickly, but it will get there. Someday.