The deadline for opening a new chapter in Turkey's negotiations for EU membership has just passed, and the prospects for opening more than one more subject this year are slim.
Regrettably, progress has slowed to a crawl, with more than half of the chapters blocked by the EU because of objections by Cyprus and France. The effect is to sap Turkey's motivation to work on reforms to meet EU standards in those chapters that still could be opened. Since no result is in sight from the long-running negotiations about the reunification of Cyprus, the only way out appears to be a deal in which Turkey, which still has troops in northern Cyprus, would allow Cypriot-flagged vessels to start using Turkish ports.
The political atmosphere is turning sour. To improve it, the EU and Turkey should establish a strategic dialogue to complement the accession process. There is already a good basis: Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, and Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, already talk in an atmosphere of trust about sensitive issues in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, and the Balkans. This dialogue should now be widened to include the EU foreign ministers and deepened through regular exchanges.
In practice, this means informal but regular talks. The dialogue should be informal so that the discussions can focus on issues of substance in the region, avoiding the risk of getting hijacked by bilateral disputes and recriminations; but it should also be institutionalized to ensure that talking continues even when the going gets tough. The Turkish foreign minister should attend a special session on neighborhood issues at the twice-yearly "Gymnich" informal meetings of EU foreign ministers and the advance meetings of EU political directors should include their Turkish counterpart. Once a year, the Turkish prime minister and president should join a special European Council meeting to talk about strategic questions with their EU counterparts.
In parallel, the EU should find ways to engage Turkey more fully in the EU's common security and defense policy. Already, more Turkish soldiers and officials participate in EU-led military and civilian missions than from many EU member states. As a regional power with one of the few economies enjoying vibrant growth, Turkey could contribute even more if practical measures allowed for deeper co-operation. This parallel track would also help to overcome the current deadlock in NATO-EU co-operation, which is caused in large part by the division of Cyprus and to which Ashton and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary-general, have separately been mandated to seek a solution.
The greatest skepticism to this idea of a strategic dialogue will probably come from the Turkish side. “Why should we put something on the table that benefits the EU, when their side is blocking so many chapters?” is a view commonly heard in Ankara. But strategic engagement with the EU is in Turkey's interest as well as the EU's. With the EU's new European External Action Service (EEAS) now in operation, the EU should become a more united and coherent presence in the world, wielding more effectively its enormous economic clout and growing security presence.
What we are proposing is an arrangement never tried before. It is not a replica of the strategic partnerships that the EU is developing with third countries. Nor is it a trialogue involving other countries; that would risk shunting Turkey permanently off the membership track.
A strategic dialogue need not be in competition with the accession process. Instead, positive cooperation on key issues in the Middle East would remind European policymakers of Turkey's value. Then, when the political atmosphere improves, the negotiations could resume with greater confidence on both sides. In the meantime, many important regional issues would already have been resolved, allowing for a rapid conclusion of the chapters covering external relations and foreign, security and defense policy.
The establishment of an effective foreign policy with Turkey would get the EEAS off to a flying start, and show that both Ankara and Brussels are committed to an ambitious agenda for the wider Middle East.