On Dec. 17 last year, the European Council decided to open accession negotiations with Turkey next month. Two conditions were put to the Turkish government: a comprehensive legal reform aimed at reinforcing the rule of law and human rights, and approval of the Adaptation Protocol of the Ankara Agreement, which extends the customs union with the EU to all new member states, including the Republic of Cyprus. Turkey has met these conditions: the legal reform entered into force on June 1, and the Protocol was signed on July 29.
A formal recognition by Turkey of the Republic of Cyprus, including its extension to the northern part of the island, was not requested as a precondition for starting accession talks. This is a complex matter related to efforts by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to negotiate a comprehensive settlement leading to reunification of the island.
Last year, both Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot community accepted Annan's proposals, which were, however, rejected by the Greek Cypriot side. There is every reason to expect Annan will bring the question to a positive conclusion well before Turkey's possible entry into the EU in around 2015. The Cyprus issue should therefore not be construed as an obstacle to the start of negotiations.
The same is true of the reported intention of some EU governments to have the "Privileged Partnership" concept explicitly included in the negotiating framework as an alternative to full membership. This proposal was discussed at last year's European Council meeting and rejected, resulting in a reference to "open-ended negotiations" in the Council's conclusions. That wording -- never used in previous enlargement rounds -- may have ruffled Turkey's feathers, but it was finally accepted as the type of constructive ambiguity that is so often used in international diplomacy.
It is nonetheless obvious from the very nature of accession negotiations that full membership must be the goal. Without that prospect, no candidate country would go through the painful process of adopting the tens of thousands of rules and regulations contained in the Acquis Communautaire (the body of EU law). To ensure that it does, is, after all, the main purpose of accession talks.
Moreover, it is difficult to imagine what advantages could be offered to Turkey in the framework of a "Privileged Partnership" beyond its long-time status as an associate member of the EU. The Customs Union concluded 10 years ago allows free trade for all but agricultural goods. Turkey is invited to Council meetings, it can participate in various EU programs and in manifestations of the European Common Foreign Policy, and, as a member of NATO, it is a partner in EU-NATO security cooperation.
Finally, like all candidate countries, Turkey also receives financial and technical assistance in support of ongoing reform programs. Short of full membership, there is hardly room for added value in Turkey's relationship with the EU.
Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has spelt it out with the necessary clarity: "If we stick to what we have ourselves decided at the highest political level in the European Council, as we should, I am reasonably confident that the negotiations will start on Oct. 3."
This statement is to the credit of the European Commission, and there is not much to be added, except to emphasize that it is up to EU governments to treat Turkey with the fairness that all candidate countries deserve. To renege on formal decisions and commitments, or to add last-minute obstacles, would make a mockery of the union's credibility. Negotiations therefore must begin on Oct. 3.