Jan./Feb. 2002 - The vision of a united Europe that began with the European Coal and Steel Community in 1957 inched closer to reality at the European Union Laeken summit when the EU declared on December 15, 2001, that "the unification of Europe is near."

The extent to which the EU is achieving a politically unified Europe may be open to debate, but the concrete progress it has made in the last two decades is not.

The inauguration of the euro binds 12 of the EU's 15 member states to a common currency. The next round of enlargement envisions accession for 10 or more new members by 2004. Plans for a common foreign and security policy are taking shape and promise to transform what was once considered a fantasy into a new reality.

The European Union, a heavyweight on the world's economic stage, is increasingly making its political muscle felt as well. In Cyprus, it is EU policy--rather than the actions of the United States or the United Nations--that has been the catalyst for jump-starting long-stalled talks between the island's estranged ethnic Greek and Turkish communities.

Cyprus is ahead of all other candidates for European Union accession in the requisite negotiating process. In December 1999, the EU declared that, although a unified Cyprus is the preferred status for accession, unification is not a prerequisite. But the accession of a divided Cyprus may pose serious ramifications for Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus and for Turkey.

Turkey's position on Cyprus's accession has been that the island cannot legally accede prior to a solution to its divided status. The European Union does not agree. If the government-controlled portion of Cyprus meets EU membership criteria in the next round of enlargement, the bloc will admit the south without the north rather than wait for a solution that may take years to achieve. Turkey has threatened to annex the north if a divided Cyprus enters the EU—a step that could permanently dash Turkey's accession plans.

The European Union cannot stop Turkey from annexing northern Cyprus. Similarly, Turkey, a non-EU member, cannot tell the EU when it can admit a country. But the European Union's determination to proceed with Cyprus's accession even if the Cyprus problem is not resolved and the attendant prospect of Turkey's alienating itself from the EU have brought Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash back to a negotiating table that many believed he had abandoned for good.

The "dinner diplomacy" conducted between Cyprus President Glafcos Clerides and Denktash in December set the table for the resumption of negotiations in January. If the talks bear fruit by the June 2002 deadline agreed to by both sides, it may be possible for a unified Cyprus to accede to the EU by 2004. If the talks are not successful, accession of a divided Cyprus will proceed as scheduled.

Turkey is also concerned about the EU's European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP). Turkey wants to play a part in the bloc's proposed 60,000-man rapid reaction force. It wants assurances that it can participate in the force's missions and that the EU will not undertake operations in areas vital to Turkish national interests, particularly the Aegean and Cyprus, without Turkish consent.

The European Union wants access to NATO facilities for the planning of potential rapid reaction force missions that may not include non-EU states in NATO, such as the United States and Turkey. Without an agreement with the European Union that addresses Turkey's ESDP concerns, Ankara has threatened to use its NATO "veto" to prevent EU access to alliance facilities.

Just prior to the Laeken summit, a tentative agreement concerning Turkey's relation to ESDP was unofficially brokered with Ankara by the U.S. and Britain. The "Istanbul agreement," not released publicly, was believed to provide Turkey with the assurances it sought regarding ESDP and informally assuage Ankara's concerns regarding EU force operations in areas vital to Turkish interests. However, the document heightened Greek security concerns to such an extent that it was rendered a dead letter at Laeken.

Disappointed that this ESDP issue could not be settled at the summit, the European Union nevertheless declared the rapid reaction force operational for some crisis-management operations. It is clear that the EU, taking small steps if necessary, intends to move ahead with ESDP with or without an arrangement with NATO. If compelled to do so, the EU can build its own planning facilities in lieu of access to NATO's.

The construction of EU-owned facilities might reduce the contributions of NATO members within the EU to the alliance and, more significantly, could diminish NATO's voice in European security strategy and planning.

The European Union's message to Turkey on Cyprus and ESDP is a clear one. The EU, recognizing Turkey's importance to Europe, will, where possible, work with Ankara until Turkey is ready for membership. In instances where the EU cannot work with Turkey, it will move on.

This gives Turkey added incentive to seek membership. Turkey's failure to reach an agreement with the European Union on ESDP or delay Cyprus's accession makes it evident that Turkey's voice will be heard and its concerns addressed in a manner equal to that of European Union member states only if it is an EU member.

Greece, at odds with Turkey for decades over Cyprus and Aegean issues, supports Turkey's membership in the EU. Athens believes that a Turkey that is more aligned to Europe economically and politically, and subject to EU laws, will increase Greek security more than any new weapons Greece may buy. This is one reason that Greece, at Laeken, supported Turkey's inclusion in the EU's constitutional convention, which will convene this spring to restructure the bloc's institutions.

The ESDP impasse probably disturbs Athens as much as it does Ankara. Greece understands that NATO has no mechanism to deal with intra-alliance conflicts. Greece also understands that it can expect little from ESDP in the event of a Greek-Turkish conflict. However, Athens' refusal to codify the EU's abandonment of Greece in such a situation is as understandable as Turkey's desire to obtain assurances that the EU would exclude its force's intervention in such a conflict.

The Belgian EU presidency complimented Turkey on the progress it has made in amending its constitution in preparation for membership, stating that, as a result of reforms in Turkey, the time is nearing for accession negotiations between Brussels and Ankara.

The economic, political, and legal reform process in Turkey demonstrates the extent to which Ankara is committed to EU membership. The EU reaffirmed at Laeken that it wants Turkey to join. The key to the EU's influence over Turkey lies in the bloc's maintaining its standards for membership and its commitment to proceeding with enlargement and ESDP goals with or, if necessary, without the approval of non-EU states in NATO.

Recent events, particularly the resumption of Cyprus talks, demonstrate that the EU can be an effective engine for change and can combine its influence with that of the U.S. and the U.N. toward solving seemingly intractable problems such as the decades-long division of Cyprus. The island's divided status is at the crux of Greek-Turkish differences that could yet lead to a shooting war between these two NATO allies. Greece and Turkey, despite progress made in the rapprochement process begun two and a half years ago, will never fully resolve their differences in the Aegean without a Cyprus settlement.

Turkey, committed since its inception as a republic in 1923 to a closer alignment with the West, understands that it cannot alienate itself from the club it must join in order to realize its full economic potential. Membership in the EU will also enhance Turkish security and give it the say it seeks in ESDP. On the other hand, extended delay of its accession could heighten Ankara's security concerns, particularly if Russia or Armenia were to pursue EU accession.

The EU's commitment to admitting Cyprus is a challenge that Turkey can accept and meet by encouraging an agreement between the island's two ethnic communities that will bring a unified Cyprus into the bloc, accelerate Turkey's accession, and pave the way for resolution of Greek-Turkish disputes in the Aegean.

At Laeken, it became clear that Turkey is very much in the driver's seat on a road that can either be fast and straight, or long and winding. How long it takes Turkey to get into the EU depends on what gears it chooses to employ.