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Home » EU - Turkey Relations, International

The EU-Turkey Project – Are We Both Making Big Mistakes?

Submitted by on 28 Mar 2013 – 15:53

By Liisa Jaakonsaari MEP

At the end of 2012, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the European Union with the Nobel Peace Prize for “advancing peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”.

From the post-war Franco-German reconciliation process to the EU’s policies of integration, the EU secured and strengthened young democracies, helped to overcome East-West divisions, opened the accession perspective for potential candidates, and brought about stability to the Western Balkans. Hence, the EU success-story has been based on inclusion and on the political will for transformation.

However, the peace-building project of the EU has not come to an end, yet. Building a bridge between Europe and the Islamic world is the challenging task today. Indeed, the Nobel award is an obligation for the EU to take up this task.

In fact, the award comes as a reminder for the EU not to discard the fruits achieved as the EU is facing the severest post-war financial and economic crisis. Nationalistic tendencies, conservatism and populism are on the rise within the EU, too.

Turkey, though it is doing fine economically, now, has lost its impetus to true political reforms and transformation. Currently, we see substantial political reforms stalling. In cases, however, where political reforms are undertaken – such as in the case of the rights of non-Muslim minorities, civil-military relations or the judicial system -, it mostly serves the interests of the ruling political elite and with no real reference to the EU. According to two renowned Turkish experts, Senem Aydin Düzgit and Fuat Keyman, the virtuous cycle of reform characteristic of the period from 1999 to 2005, has been replaced by a vicious cycle in which a lack of effective EU conditionality feeds into political stagnation.

Impasse in relations

Indeed, Turkey-EU relations seem to have been caught in a whirlpool of mistrust. Analysts agree that both the EU and Turkey bear responsibility for the present impasse in relations.

It was under the Finnish Presidency in 1999, that at the Helsinki Summit the European Council decided to recognise Turkey as a candidate country. Turkey responded with a flurry of reforms. Consequently, in 2005, accession talks could start.

Now, accession talks are deadlocked. In the last two years, no single negotiation chapter has been opened. Most chapters are either frozen or blocked by the EU Council and by some member states (France and Cyprus) due to the Cyprus dispute and for domestic political reasons. Out of 35 chapters, only one is provisionally closed and 12 chapters are open. Hence, the accession negotiation process is not moving forward and the necessary EU-related reforms towards the consolidation of Turkish democracy have slowed down, particularly, in such crucial areas as freedom of expression, minority rights and the judicial system,- all an essential part of the Copenhagen criteria.

Turkey remains obstinate with regard to the unresolved Cyprus issue. Turkey’s unacceptable boycott of Cyprus’ EU-Presidency – even the Joint Parliamentary Committee meeting did not take place – is regrettable, as its refusal is not very helpful to move the accession process forward.

We all do know that public support for EU accession is needed. Politicians’ statements do matter. Mixed messages from political leaders – as from former French President Sarkozy, German Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Erdogan – for the purpose of short-term political calculations re-enforce Turkish scepticism within the EU and EU scepticism in Turkey.

Turkey’s growing self-confidence combined with an indignant annoyance about the double standard way it feels the EU has been treating its accession, has hardened its attitude and tone towards an EU faced with a financial crisis.

In October 2012, when the European Commission published its Turkey 2012 Progress Report which gives a realistic picture of developments, Ankara reacted with a disproportionate outpouring of anger. To Ankara, the report was unfairly critical. And, in turn, Turkey presented its very first own progress report at the turn of the year.

Is Turkey turning its back on the EU?

Turkey’s extraordinary economic achievements in the last decade, give it a good basis for successful EU membership. The political basis, in contrast, still needs to be developed.

Aware of its geopolitical position, Turkey has pursued an active but unconditional foreign policy with aspirations to becoming a strong regional and global player.

In 2011, however, the region has changed dramatically and remains unstable. The new regional reconfiguration process threatens not only to fuel conflict at home, but also Turkey’s economic backbone. It just proves that unilateralism is bound to fail.

On the domestic front, tendencies of a drift towards a more conservative and authoritarian style of leadership provoke disturbing confusion about Turkey’s direction. Instead, what Turkey needs are strong democratic institutions responsive to Turkey’s political and ethnic diversity. The constitutional reform towards inclusive pluralism and renewed pro-active EU engagement would strengthen Turkey’s own house and make it more resilient, a credible model and a dynamic regional and international actor.

In their recent articles, Orhan Pamuk worries that Europe is turning away from Turkey, and Marc Pierini reflects whether Turkey is moving away from Europe. Two symmetrical questions that reflect a widespread worry.

I believe that neither Turkey is turning away from Europe nor Europe is turning away from Turkey. Both need each other; their destinies are intertwined. Both cannot afford it in this new globalised world we live in. Prime Minister Erdogan himself in his recent visit to Berlin reaffirmed Turkey’s European orientation and so did the Turkish Foreign Minister in Brussels.

What could be done?

The EU’s enlargement policy has been and should be a credible instrument with effective and transformative power. In order that it can be it, the negotiation wheels need oiling. What then can be done to get Turkey’s accession process back on track?

Urgent work is needed to rebuild trust and to get out of the vicious circle of blaming and blocking. Positive actions, the recognition of Turkey as an equal partner and stronger mutual commitments with a broader vision are essential to move the agenda ahead.

Commissioner Füle’s pro-active initiative of the “Positive Agenda” to complement and support the accession process, launched in May 2012, is a valuable effort to put some momentum back into the laming relations.

Under the Irish EU Presidency, one hopes that progress is going to be made in the Roadmap for Visa liberalisation, the signing of the Readmission Agreement and in the negotiations of opening chapters. With France’s new President Francois Hollande, the de-blocking of negotiation chapters will hopefully be achieved. The political rhetoric has changed positively, already.

The inter-parliamentary political dialogue between the European Parliament and the Turkish Parliament is a vital tool to bring movement into EU-Turkey relations.

The EU should strengthen the dialogue with the public by engaging with those organisations and circles in Turkey – from the academic, business, civil, social and cultural sectors – that can have a positive influence on bringing about reforms.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the EU-Turkey Association Agreement. Isn’t it an opportune moment to turn EU-Turkey relations into another success story!