EU-TURKEY RELATIONS AFTER GEZİ: ANOTHER HALT OR AN INCENTIVE TO REVIVE TURKEY’S MORIBUND ACCESSION PROCESS?

upa-admin 15 Temmuz 2013 5.089 Okunma 0
EU-TURKEY RELATIONS AFTER GEZİ: ANOTHER HALT OR AN INCENTIVE TO REVIVE TURKEY’S MORIBUND ACCESSION PROCESS?

In my previous article I was to a certain extent optimistic over a positive breakthrough in EU-Turkey relations in 2013. However, the way Prime Minister Erdoğan and the AKP members (with a few exceptions) have dealt with the protests over the demolition of Gezi park have jeopardized the efforts made in the past months to re-start stalled negotiations and rebuild trust between the two parties.

In its resolution adopted on June 13, the European Parliament (EP) harshly condemned police violence against protesters recalling that freedom of assembly, freedom of expression (including through social media both online and offline, the resolution stresses) and freedom of press are fundamental principles of the European Union.

The response of the Turkish government was somewhat worrisome. To start with, PM Erdoğan did not recognize the resolution calling it “null and void”, as Turkey is not an EU member, for him the European Parliament’s resolutions are not binding for Turkey. In a press release, EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış accused EP members and EU officials of “irresponsibly making very bold and irrational speeches”. According to Bağış, “Turkey has the most reformist and strongest government in Europe and the most charismatic and strongest leader in the world”. Despite declaring the country’s commitment to reform itself in line with EU standards, Bağış states that suspending Turkey’s EU accession process “is in fact a threat not for Turkey, but for the EU”.

Well both Erdoğan and Bağış are actually wrong. Turkey needs the EU more than it thinks. Even if Turkey is not an EU member (yet), it is a candidate for membership in accession talks with the EU. Therefore, in order to become a member, Turkey will still need to uphold EU’s values which, among other things, is against the use of excessive police force.

Is Erdoğan’s European dream over?

Erdoğan has tended to hide behind the economic success the country has experienced in the past decade in order to highlight AKP’s achievements and perpetuate his power. While it is true that his government pushed through essential reforms in order to earn the start of membership talks with the EU in 2005, the country has experienced a set-back in political rights and freedoms in the past years. This is again why Turkey still needs Europe.

As evidenced during a meeting held between PM Erdoğan and Štefan Füle, EU Commissioner for Enlargement, in the framework of a conference on the future EU-Turkey relations held last June in Istanbul, their understanding about the concept of democracy greatly differs. In Erdoğan’s view winning elections, which has been the case for him in the last three polls securing a greater majority each time, is enough to count as democracy, while for Füle “democracy is a demanding discipline –not only during election campaigns, but every day.”[1]

The Gezi Park protests hijacked the agenda of the conference further distancing their positions. For Erdoğan “those who have a problem with the government should deal with it at the ballot box”. In Füle’s view democracy “requires debates, consultations and compromise to reach out to all segments of society – democracy is not limited to elections alone.”[2] After their meeting, Füle tweeted that he was “disappointed with the lost opportunity at the Istanbul conference to reach out to those calling for respect and inclusive dialogue”.

Foreign affairs MEPs have insisted that the current unrest in Turkey highlights the absence of a culture of compromise and the failure to tolerate dissent in Turkish democracy. In this regard, the EU could play a role by engaging the Turkish government to discuss Gezi movement as a democratization process while involving the Turkish civil society in a constructive manner.

There is a need for more inclusive and consensual politics in Turkey. This is not something new in Turkish political history as it was also the case during Atatürk’s  secularism era. In Andrew Duff’s opinion, the AKP has simply replaced Kemalism by Islamism and he believes that “any further substantive progress [in terms of EU reforms] under the AKP government have ended.”[3]

When Erdoğan came to power 10 years ago he made Turkey’s accession to the EU a national priority. The EU rewarded the AKP for having challenged the old Kemalist regime by opening accession negotiations in 2005. The AKP had convinced the European ruling elite with its “silent revolution”, as Turkey’s democratic transformation process was known. AKP abolished the death penalty (by ratifying Protocol No. 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as a part of a Constitutional package passed in 2002 by the Ecevit government), brought the military under civilian control, wrote a new penal code and expanded political rights. However, since 2007 the EU seems no longer a priority and the EU wonders what has happened to the AKP. Relations between the AKP and the EU have never been so low as they are today.

Paradoxically, as soon as formal negotiations started in 2005, Turkey’s hopes for full membership were followed by a growing disenchantment and frustration towards the EU as a result of political opposition from certain EU members and the “Cyprus issue” preventing any relevant progress in the accession negotiations. As a result, the promise of EU accession has ceased to be a factor that inspires reforms. The EU has arguably lost its soft power over Turkey.

There is indeed little incentive for AKP to continue with EU driven reforms after having achieved an indisputable political dominance in the country. Continuing with the reform path would mean to reduce the 10 % election threshold, the highest in Europe, securing the independence of the judiciary and assuring media pluralism, undermining his political ambition to stay in power for the next ten years.

Nonetheless, the EU has gained unprecedented support from the streets and the political parties that are not in power. As Hugh Pope argues “the decision on Turkish membership will be taken by a following generation of politicians.”[4] For this reason, the EU should also engage with Turkish opposition parties and other actors in society for an inclusive dialogue on the future of EU-Turkey relations.

EU-Turkey relations: time to break the stalemate?

Since talks started in 2005, only 14 out of the 35 negotiation chapters have been opened with only one being provisionally closed to date. 17 chapters remain closed due to political reasons. Since 2010, no chapter has been opened until very recently.

2013 was expected to be the year when accession talks were to be relaunched helping to rebuild a damaged relationship, with both France and Germany -long sceptics about Turkey’s membership to the EU- supporting the process. However, the mishandling of the protests by the Turkish government has casted doubts in the EU bloc over the suitability for continuing talks with Turkey.

Germany, backed by Austria and the Netherlands, suggested blocking the opening of a new chapter in talks with Turkey expected to be opened on June 26. The last-minute compromise found between the Foreign Affairs Ministers of Germany and Turkey over the opening of this chapter prevented a major crisis in EU-Turkey relations. The diplomatic efforts made by Ankara surprisingly showed how important it is for Ankara to salvage membership, despite having publicly criticized the EU in a number of occasions. Which is actually a positive sign.

Although the Council agreed to open Chapter 22 on regional policy, it decided to postpone the talks after the presentation of the Commission’s annual progress report in autumn this year[5], conveniently taking place after September’s elections in Germany. The fact that Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany) election manifesto rejects full EU membership for Turkey, not even mentioning the term “privileged partnership” as she preferred to describe the relationship with Turkey Europe should seek, is quite telling. Turkey’s size and economic structure would overburden the EU, the manifesto reads. Merkel argues that Turkey seems no longer interested in EU accession, so that has prompted her party to describe its aims differently. We shouldn’t forget that Turkey’s ruling AK Party has an observer status at the European People’s Party (EPP), EU’s biggest political families, where the CDU sits.

The negotiations risk of experiencing another setback if EU members don’t agree that Turkey has adequately done its homework. If we have the last two reports as a reference, we can already get an approximate idea of what the Commission’s answer will be, as it has mainly criticized Turkey for not having effectively implemented the reforms to bring the country closer to EU norms.

Although mainly a symbolic gesture, chapter 22 is of paramount importance for social and economic development of the most disadvantaged regions in Turkey as well as addressing the demands for greater local autonomy in a highly centralized country, thus contributing to the government’s ongoing efforts to find a solution to the Kurdish issue. This chapter was blocked by the then-president French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007. François Hollande lifted Sarkozy’s veto on this chapter earlier this year.

The opening of each chapter offers an additional platform for a dialogue based on EU values and principles. It is the best way to ensure that the EU remains the benchmark for reforms in Turkey. The opening of Chapters 23 and 24, on judiciary and fundamental rights, and justice, freedom and security, is crucial to engage with Turkey in EU standards and values. Füle has committed to make “all possible efforts” for the opening of negotiations on these chapters of the accession process.[6] Turkey has tirelessly demanded the opening of those chapters which remain unilaterally blocked by Cyprus. Füle has said to be “working hard to overcome these blockades.”[7] Nonetheless, these blockades would only be lifted if Turkey would fully implement the Additional Protocol.

What lies ahead for the future of EU-Turkey relations?

Long time supporters of Turkey’s EU membership, as it is the case of Hannes Swoboda, leader of the Socialists & Democrats in the European Parliament, would want to see Turkey in Europe, but as Swoboda has pointed out “this Turkey as represented today by Mr. Erdoğan cannot have a place in Europe.”[8] Even Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-president of the Greens in the European Parliament, has recently stated that Turkey “will never join the EU” and that it is necessary to search for a new type of privileged partnership.[9]

This is a crucial moment for EU-Turkey relations. Positive signals from Brussels are needed if we want to bring Turkey back to its European path. Only a renewed and credible negotiation process could inject new momentum to a decades-long accession process.

At the same time, it is also a crucial moment for Turkey’s own democracy. The EU is confronted with a dilemma: how to encourage Turkish society without rewarding the government? Turkey will never go back to the morning of 31st May when protests broke up in Istanbul rapidly becoming a widespread national movement and the Turkish government has to acknowledge this and act accordingly. A new generation of young Turks, known as “Generation Y”, who strongly advocate for democracy and fundamental rights could eventually become the flag carrier of European values. There is a chance that these protests will help Turkey to bring new enthusiasm about the EU  back pushing for an alignment with European standards and values. In any case, neither Turkey nor the EU should give up on Turkey’s EU accession.

 

Laura BATALLA


[1] Štefan Füle, EU-Turkey bound together, speech, June 7, 2013, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_SPEECH-13-517_en.htm.

[2] Štefan Füle, Crucial moment in EU-Turkey relations, speech, 12 June 2013, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_SPEECH-13-526_en.htm.

[3] Andrew Duff, “Turkey’s ruling AKP simply replaced Kemalism with Islamism, EP member says”, Hürriyet Daily News, June 24 2013, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkeys-ruling-akp-simply-replaced-kemalism-with-islamism-ep-member-says.aspx?PageID=238&NID=49313&NewsCatID=338.

[4] Hugh Pope, “Turkey and Europe still need each other”, International Crisis Group, 18 June 2013, http://www.crisisgroupblogs.org/eu-turkey-cyprus/2013/06/18/turkey-and-europe-still-need-each-other/.

[5] Press statement, Council of the European Union, 25 June 2013, http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/EN/genaff/137597.pdf.

[6] Štefan Füle, Crucial moment in EU-Turkey relations, speech, 12 June 2013, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_SPEECH-13-526_en.htm.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Concerned about Turkey, MEPs debate speeding up EU talks”, EurActiv.com, 13 June 2013, http://www.euractiv.com/enlargement/meps-concerned-turkey-discuss-sp-news-528525.

[9] Arnaud Leparmentier, “Le miracle du Bosphore attendra”, Le Monde, 26 June 2013.

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