A series of what one official described as "carefully calibrated" documents freezes talks in eight hand-picked fields in retaliation for Turkey's refusal to receive air and sea traffic originating from the Greek part of Cyprus, but also promises moves to help Turkish Cypriots.
EU officials expressed relief on December 11 that the bloc's foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels, had managed to avert a potentially hugely divisive summit debate on Turkey.
A Creative Outcome
Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, speaking for the outgoing EU presidency, said "creativity" had been needed to arrive at the outcome ahead of the impending summit on December 14-15.
"So, all in all, this means that there will not be a 'Turkish summit' on [December 14 and 15]," Tuomioja said. "Probably there will references to, I wouldn't be surprised, there will be references to the decisions taken today, but we have unanimity among the member states on how to proceed and there will be no need to return to these issues in the [summit] council."
Playing on metaphors popular in EU circles, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos quipped after the meeting that the bloc had opted for a "slowdown" in talks with Turkey to avoid a "train crash."
The decision, if it does not unravel during the week, is a symbolic triumph for Finland, under whose last presidency in late 1999 Turkey was made a candidate for EU membership.
The Cyprus Problem
Brussels has had Turkey in its sights over the past year for purportedly stalling on political reforms. More seriously however, Turkey has steadfastly refused to meet what all EU member states say is an essential condition for the accession talks. After the bloc's enlargement in 2004, Turkey agreed extend to all new EU member states an earlier commitment to open its ports and airports to their traffic. The commitment is known as the Ankara Protocol.
However, Turkey now refuses to implement it in the case of Cyprus, which remains divided into Greek and Turkish communities. The former enjoys international recognition and represents the island in the EU, the latter has no political or trade links with the bloc.
The package of measures agreed by EU ministers on December 11 contains three elements. First, there is a decision not to open talks on eight of the 35 negotiating "chapters" of EU law before Turkey complies with the Ankara Protocol. Second, the EU expresses support to UN-sponsored efforts to reunite Cyprus -- rebuffed by the island's Greek community in a referendum in 2004. And third, a promise of a raft of measures to materialize in January designed to ease the trade isolation of Turkish northern Cyprus.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said the package is crafted to offer every interested party something, but "not 100 percent."
"This decision strikes the right balance and it is a very carefully calibrated decision," Rehn said. "On the one hand, it sends a signal to Turkey that failure to meet legal obligations cannot remain without consequences. On the other hand, at the same time, it clarifies the way forward and enables progress in the accession negotiations."
The EU's basic dilemma was how to register its displeasure without provoking Turkey to walk away from the negotiating table. Facing elections in 2007, the Turkish leadership's options appear restricted. It reportedly made a compromise offer to open one major port to Cypriot ships, but the gesture appeared not to have played a part in EU deliberations.
Tuomioja described the impending decisions to ease sanctions against northern Cyprus as "unfinished business" for the EU, agreed already in 2004. However, the business remains unfinished largely because resistance from Greek-community Cypriots. The EU move seems clearly intended to mollify Ankara, whose foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, warned the EU in the "International Herald Tribune" on December 11 to avoid setting "unilateral conditions."
The Union Divided
The package of EU measures is also designed to reconcile those -- like France, Austria, and the Netherlands -- who wanted a harsher EU response, with other members, such as Britain, Italy, and Poland arguing for a more lenient course of action.
Rehn directed his main appeal to the skeptics, whose domestic publics are struggling to come to terms with large mostly Muslim immigrant communities.
"Europe needs a stable and democratic Turkey, and Turkey needs Europe both politically and economically," he said. "This is why we started accession negotiations a year ago, and this remains valid more than ever. Turkey is an anchor of stability in a most unstable region, and it is a benchmark of democracy for the wider Middle East, for the Muslim world."
Rehn also noted that accepting Turkey would also send a signal that the EU is confident that its own "second-biggest religion," Islam, is compatible with its values.