EU-Turkey relations were put on hold before the summer awaiting approval by European Union (EU) Member States to restart negotiations on the basis of European Commission’s annual Turkey progress report. For the first time in the negotiations, the opening of a chapter –chapter 22 on regional policy, which talks were postponed due to protests- has been linked to the Progress Report recommendations.
There have been two key dates in the calendar regarded as being decisive to advance Turkey’s relations with the EU, namely the German Federal elections and the release of Turkey’s annual progress report by the European Commission (EC).
EU-Turkey relations after Germany’s election
Before the release of the annual report on the progress achieved towards EU accession in Turkey, expected in mid-October, Germany held its 18th Bundestag election on September 22.
Elections in Germany this year were closely watched worldwide. Europe’s direction has been shaped under Merkel’s EU leadership in the past years. Following her new election victory, Angela Merkel’s position in Europe is even stronger than before.
Turkey’s aspirations to join the EU have also been subject to Merkel’s wishes. Despite her new victory, Merkel won’t come to power alone as she will have to form a grand coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which has traditionally been supportive of Turkey’s accession to the EU, especially during Gerhard Schröder’s period in office.
According to a poll conducted by the German-Turkish Foundation for Education and Scientific Research (TAVAK), 64 percent of respondents said that they see Germany as the country constituting the biggest obstacle to Turkey’s EU accession. This is especially significant taking into account that Germany is home to at least three million Turks forming about up to five percent of Germany’s total population.
German-Turkish voters in Germany, mostly descendants of the first Turkish “guest workers” who came to Germany in the 1960s, have traditionally been loyal to the SPD and the Green party, whose chairman Cem Özdemir was the first ethnic Turk to be ever elected to the Bundestag. Following this year’s elections, eleven representatives of Turkish origin have been elected to Germany’s federal parliament, from five in the last elections. With Cemile Giousouf’s election within the Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU), becoming the first Muslim party member, there are now Turkish origin representatives in all Bundestag’s parliamentary groups.
EU-Turkey relations are not expected to change much during Merkel’s third term. Before Merkel took office in November 2005, the EU was rather supportive of Turkey’s entry. However, some observers argue that the Germanisation of Europe particularly on integration, immigration and foreign policy has undermined EU’s great power aspirations. In fact, Merkel has never made any effort to strengthen Europe’s foreign, defense and security policy. As a result, Europe has become more inward-looking.
The EU must think and act strategically if it wants to play a larger global role. Turkey is believed to be a key country to Europe’s defense and security policies as well as to strengthen Europe’s influence on the world stage.
The democratization package: meaningful progress or illusory reform?
The democratization package announced by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on September 30 has raised huge expectations. Described as “the most wide-ranging package of reforms in the country’s history”, this package is however not meant to be the last in order to consolidate Turkey’s long path of democratization, Erdoğan has said. Although a step in the right direction, liberal sections of Turkish public opinion argue it has not met the expectations raised as it does not address urgent democratic requirements.
The main beneficiaries of the reforms have been Kurds nationalists, in an effort to salvage the peace process –even if the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) is not fully satisfied with the proposals-, and religious conservatives, Erdoğan’s own voter base, after the abolition of restrictions on women wearing headscarves in state institutions, preparing the ground for next year’s local and presidential elections. As the elections draw nearer, Erdoğan is believed to announce further substantial reforms.
The secret approach in preparing this package has infuriated the opposition. The package was prepared behind closed doors with no parliamentary or civil society participation. Moreover, only few journalists were admitted to the press conference presenting the package, without the possibility of asking questions.
The current 10 percent threshold, the highest among Council of Europe member states, remains a key challenge for Turkey’s democracy. The package proposes lowering the election threshold from the current 10 percent to 5 percent with a district system or abolishing it establishing a single-member district system. However, it remains to be seen whether these alternative systems would actually promote greater participation and fair representation.
The Law on Political Parties should also be revised. Even though the package has facilitated local organization of political parties in order to be able to take part in elections, the current legislation in this field remains quite strict. Newly established parties are often unable to take part in elections under existing legislation.
On the other hand, the package takes timid measures regarding freedom of expression. It eases certain regulations on rallies and demonstrations by extending the permitted period of demonstrations until midnight. The other side of the coin is that the government is reported to be working on a new regulation which will allow police to carry out “pre-emptive arrests” against “potential lawbreakers” without recourse to a court order. To be approved, this law will not only punish “suspects” for past crimes, but also for those they have yet to commit.
Some say the package was aimed at improving Erdoğan’s democratic image home and abroad after criticisms of authoritarian and repressive style of governance. However, measures contained in the reform package do not appear to be sufficient in order to prevent new outbreaks of discontent.
2013 Progress Report on Turkey
Expected to be the “toughest” since 1998, the European Commission’s 2013 Progress Report has generally lauded the Turkish government for its overall commitment to further democratization and political reforms, notably the adoption of the democratization package, the fourth judicial reform package and the peace process with the Kurds.
The report notes some progress in the area of the judiciary but underlines the need “to consolidate the independence, impartiality and efficiency of the judiciary, including the criminal justice system”. In the same way, a recent study conducted by the Turkish Economic Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) argues that the four judiciary reform packages introduced by the Turkish government over the past two years have failed to change the problematic structure of the Turkish judiciary system. Although it welcomes the steps introduced by the fourth judicial package toward the elimination of problematic clauses and practices, the report considers that they have brought in heavier clauses to limit freedom of expression.
The progress report also underlines that the work on political reforms and parliament’s ability to perform its key functions continue to be hampered by a “persistent lack of dialogue and spirit of compromise among political parties”. Along the same line, the report stresses that “more attention needs to be paid to the adoption of an inclusive approach to law-making, with systemic consultation of all stakeholders, including on sensitive issues”.
Touching on the writing of a new constitution, the report underlines that the “clarity and transparency on procedure and follow-up of the work of the cross-party Parliamentary Conciliation Committee was lacking.” After 18-month-long effort of the parliamentary constitutional reconciliation commission, a new constitution does not look promising.
Echoes of Gezi
The effects of last summer’s Gezi Park protests are largely covered by the report. The report has repeatedly condemned the excessive use of force by police against demonstrators during the crackdown on anti-government protests in late May and early June, during which six people died, including one policemen, and thousands were injured, some of them severely.
A comprehensive report prepared by Amnesty International on the Turkish government’s response to the Gezi park protests was released a couple of the days after the “democracy package”. The report equally condemns the “brutal and unequivocal” reaction of the Turkish authorities to prevent and disperse peaceful demonstrations.
The EU progress report has criticized the overall “uncompromising stance” adopted by the government during the protests, including a “polarizing tone towards citizens, civil society organizations and businesses”. At the same time, the report acknowledges the emergence of a growing active civil society in Turkey and calls for its involvement in politics as a “legitimate stakeholder in democracy”.
The picture on the area of freedom of expression is quite worrisome. The report notes that freedom of media remained restricted in practice and criticized the widespread self-censorship by media owners and journalists. Intimidating statements of state officials together with the high concentration of media ownership in the hands of industrial conglomerates are the main obstacles to free media, the report reads.
In light of the alleged violations of human rights in the context of the protests across the country, the report has underlined the need for “far-reaching reforms in order to ensure respect for freedom of assembly in line with European standards”.
The state of democracy and human rights in Turkey has been in the spotlight recently. In its report on Individual Freedoms in Turkey, conducted between February and July 2013, Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and former EU ambassador to Turkey (2006-2011), gives a warning about the increasing authoritarian practices in the fields of freedom of cultural expression and coexistence of different lifestyles.
In Pierini’s conclusion, the EU can’t ignore a large segment of the Turkish population who is strongly adhering to fundamental Western values. In his opinion, the Turkish government should respect individual preferences. If Turkey is to be considered a first class democracy, Pierini says, it should become an “open, pluralistic and tolerant society”.
However, the recent clashes in the Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ), following Ankara’s Municipality’s decision to launch the construction of a controversial road project crossing the campus, shows no lesson learned in this regard.
The progress report praised President Abdullah Gül’s conciliatory role across Turkey’s political spectrum and society.
In his annual address at the opening session of the Turkish parliament, President Gül warned against the polarization of the Turkish society and insisted on the importance of a free media. As what can be regarded as criticism directed at Erdoğan’s authoritarianism, Gül said: “The separation of powers, a free press, and an effective opposition are also among indispensable elements of democracy”.
Gül’s has also shown a more constructive approach when discussing the Gezi events, defending the right to peaceful assembly and dissent. “As a nation, we should learn from these events and try to understand the sentiments of the younger generation […] We must now leave these events behind and look ahead by making use of this experience to strengthen the participatory and pluralistic qualities of our democracy […] Respecting all identities, believes and lifestyles and finding solutions to everyone’s problems are indispensable parts of social peace”.
Gül is eligible to run again in next year’s president election. His increasingly independent stance is believed to take the country in a different direction. However, in light of Erdoğan’s popular legitimacy weakening as a result of the government’s handling of the Gezi protests and the fact that a powerful presidency seems not plausible anymore, Erdoğan might rethink his promise not to serve another term as prime minister.
Some argue that the “democratization package” was just released on time to have positive repercussions on the EU progress report. The overall picture could have changed considerably if the package wouldn’t have been considered by the evaluation of the European Commission.
Ankara has taken the progress report as a victory declaring that Turkey has “never been closer to EU standards”. It remains to be seen whether the government will also take note of the criticisms and concerns raised in the report.
Turkey and the EU: is there light at the end of the tunnel?
On October 22nd, EU governments agreed to hold a new round of accession talks with Turkey on November 5. After a three-year deadlock, the launch of a new negotiation chapter with the EU is of great importance.
According to the Transatlantic Trends 2013 public opinion survey released last September by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, 44 percent of Turkish respondents –down from 73% in 2004- still favored joining the EU. In Europe, only 20 percent of the respondents supported Turkey’s membership, the survey said.
In this regard, two-way re-engagement with the EU is crucial. Turkish minister for EU affairs, Egemen Bağış, told The Telegraph that Turkey would probably never become a member of the EU because of “stiff opposition and prejudiced attitudes from current members”. Bağış later stressed that Turkey was more likely to follow the example of Norway and to remain closely aligned with EU standards but not as member.
Unlike last year, Bağış seemed to be pleased with EU’s progress Report. Nevertheless, in a press statement Bağış said that Progress Reports “are not scorecards for Turkey” and he announced that the Ministry of EU Affairs will coordinate the preparation of a detailed evaluation of the EU’s report “in order to provide the [European] Commission with detailed information on the points that [they] disagree with”.
With regard to Turkey’s reform commitment, Bağış proudly affirmed that Turkey enjoys today “the most transparent and liberal atmosphere ever in the area of freedom of expression and freedom of the media” and went on saying that “all legislation enacted and all reforms implemented have been undertaken with the broadest possible consultation with our people and our Government will continue to implement these reforms with the same inclusive, participatory approach”.
The truth is that Turkey is no closer to joining the EU that it was a year ago. The EU should continue to express concern over Turkey’s democratic deficiencies, focusing on questions of judicial independence, law enforcement, electoral reform and media freedom, as well as broadly engaging with all Turkey’s political players.
There are no pro-European political forces in Turkey nowadays. Turkey’s civil society has emerged as the most pro-European actor in the Turkish scene. In fact, Turkey’s and EU’s young generations will be responsible for shaping the next half century of relations between the two. In this regard, building bridges between Turkey’s young generation and their counterparts in the EU is essential. Visa obligation constitutes an obstacle in this sense.
Accession negotiations need to regain momentum. Work has been interrupted over the years on a number of negotiating chapters due to lack of consensus amongst Member States, the progress report admits. A less-politicized and rather technical Europeanization process is needed in order to give the EU the leverage over Turkey to push for further reforms.
In its strategy paper, the European Commission expressed its will to open chapter 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights) and 24 (Justice, Freedom and Security) by communicating the opening benchmarks agreed upon to Turkey as soon as possible with a view to enabling the opening of negotiations under these two chapters. However, these two chapters remain blocked by Cyprus as a result of the ongoing dispute over the division of the island. The Commission recalled that Turkey has still not made progress on normalizing bilateral relations with the Republic of Cyprus. On the other hand, Turkey blames the EU for its one-sided view on the conflict.
EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Štefan Füle, has also expressed the wish to start a dialogue leading to a visa free regime for Turkish citizens, along with the signature of an EU-Turkey readmission agreement. Turkey was presented a roadmap in summer 2012, but Ankara feels its sensitivity about the roadmap has been ignored by the Commission. For this reason, it is highly recommended that Ankara start talks with the EU as soon as possible in order to overcome its fears regarding the implications of signing a readmission agreement with the EU.
The prospect of Turkey’s joining the EU is uncertain. As it is the future restructuring of the EU. In this regard, in his address to the new parliamentary session, Gül maintained that Turkey “must closely monitor this restructuring process and base its strategies not on what the EU was 5 years ago, but what the EU will become in 5 years from now. We must give direction to our own policies now, so that we can establish Turkey’s place in the restructured EU”. This restructuring could eventually lead to new membership models.
In the mean time, the accession process should remain the most suitable framework for promoting EU-related reforms in Turkey and Turkey’s EU membership should continue to be regarded as “the biggest democratization project after the proclamation of the Republic” as Erdoğan once said.
 Democratization and Human Rights Package, Press Statement, Justice and Development Party, 30 September 2013, http://www.akparti.org.tr/english/haberler/democratization-and-human-rights-package/52628
 Ibid, p. 12.
 “Judicial Packages: An Evaluation With Respect to Rights and Freedoms”, TESEV, http://www.tesev.org.tr/Upload/Publication/84957a01-5e21-495c-88c0-6de5c9960e76/Yarg%C4%B1%20Paketleri%20Hak%20ve%20%C3%96zg%C3%BCrl%C3%BCkler%20A%C3%A7%C4%B1s%C4%B1ndan%20bir%20De%C4%9Ferlendirme%20K%C4%B1sa%20Rapor.pdf Available soon in English here: http://www.tesev.org.tr/en/event/press-conference-and-panel-judicial-reform-packages
 Ibid, p. 7.
 Ibid, p. 8.
 “Gezi Park Protests. Brutal Denial of the Right to Peaceful Assembly in Turkey”, Amnesty International, 2 October 2013, http://www.amnesty.org/es/library/asset/EUR44/022/2013/en/0ba8c4cc-b059-4b88-9c52-8fbd652c6766/eur440222013en.pdf
 European Commission, Commission Staff Working Document: Turkey 2013 Progress Report, 16 October 2013, available at: http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/pdf/key_documents/2013/package/tr_rapport_2013.pdf, p. 8.
 Ibid, p. 11.
 Ibid, p. 53.
 Marc Pierini, “Individual Freedoms in Turkey”, Carnegie Europe, September 9, 2013, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/individual_freedoms_turkey.pdf
 Ibid, p. 23.
 H. E. President Abdullah Gül’s Address on the Occasion of the Commencement of the New Legislative Year of the TBMM, 1 October 2013, http://www.tccb.gov.tr/speeches-statements/344/87262/he-president-abdullah-guls-addreb-on-the-occasion-of-the-commencement-of-the-new-legislative-year-of.html
 Council Press Release, 15160/13, 22 October 2013, http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/EN/genaff/139103.pdf
 Transatlantic Trends, Key findings, German Marshall Fund of the United States, http://trends.gmfus.org/files/2013/09/TTrends-2013-Key-Findings-Report.pdf
 Alex Spillius, “Turkey ‘will probably never be EU member’”, The Telegraph, 21 September 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/turkey/10325218/Turkey-will-probably-never-be-EU-member.html
 European Commission, Enlargement Strategy and Main Challenges 2013-2014, 16 October 2013, http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/pdf/key_documents/2013/package/strategy_paper_2013_en.pdf
 H. E. President Abdullah Gül’s Address on the Occasion of the Commencement of the New Legislative Year of the TBMM.