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Turkey – EU Relations after Gezi Protests and Corruption Investigations in Turkey

Submitted by on 15 Apr 2014 – 15:08

Emine BademciBy Emine Bademci, PhD Researcher, Political Science Department, University of Gothenburg

Turkey’s EU accession talks reached an impasse in 2006 – soon after their start in 2005 – apparently due to the Cyprus issue. So far 14 chapters out of 35 have been opened and only one of them has been provisionally closed. Mostly Cyprus, France and Germany have blocked the opening of or progress on chapters. In the meantime, the EU has criticized the AKP government on a number of issues related to democracy, rule of law and freedom of expression. The government, in turn, has not shown willingness to accept criticism, let alone acting in a way to eliminate them, and PM Erdogan has occasionally expressed enthusiasm for joining other organizations such as the Shanghai Co-operation Organization to find relief from the pain the EU gives. Beginning from May 2012, the EU had expressed intentions to put the accession process back on track, besides positive messages from both France and Germany “to give new impetus” to the talks. Nonetheless, the stalemate had lasted until November 2013.

In late May 2013, Gezi protests against the demolition of GeziPark within an urban development project started and the AKP government and PM Erdogan had had the most difficult times of their political careers. Due to excessive police force against the demonstrators six people died, thousands were injured, tens of them permanently disabled, and 15-year-old Berkin Elvan has been in coma since early June. All this was a shock to the EU along with PM Erdogan’s uncompromising and polarizing attitude towards the protests and in June Germany delayed the restart of talks pointing to this issue.

In its 2013 progress report on Turkey, the European Commission stressed the general peacefulness of the demonstrations and the need to bring Turkish laws and implementation concerning the right to assembly and intervention by law enforcement officers in line with European standards. In November the accession talks restarted with the opening of a new chapter, more than three years after the last one, and on 16 December visa liberalization talks were launched following the readmission agreement.

The very next day, on 17 December, Turkey woke up to a huge graft and corruption investigation which included the minister for European Union affairs and chief negotiator, Egemen Bagis, the sons of the ministers for interior, economy and environment, the CEO of the largest state bank, Halkbank, an Iranian businessman with Turkish citizenship, the owner of one of the largest construction companies, and AKP mayor of Istanbul’s Fatih district. This has been a big shock to the government and PM Erdogan and soon it became clear that Gezi protests were not at all the most difficult episode for them. The investigations were said to be undertaken by the followers of Fethullah Gulen within the police and the judiciary. PM Erdogan has denied the allegations and condemned the probes as a foreign plot and an attempted civilian coup against the government by a parallel structure within the state led by Gulen and backed by foreign powers who aim to destroy Turkey’s growing economy and regional power.

AKP and the Gulen Community had been in alliance especially since when Abdullah Gul’s candidacy for presidential elections was confronted with resistance from the military in 2007. They allied against the military as a common enemy that wished to keep its say on politics. Nevertheless, after eliminating the common enemy through the prosecution and arrests of many from the retired and active military personnel, from civil society organizations and media over alleged coup attempts, conflicts and thereby a power struggle between the allies came to the surface. The peak was the AKP’s plan to close private preparatory courses for university entrance examinations, at least one quarter of which is owned by the Gulen Community, providing both financial and human resources to it for many years.

Immediately after the dawn operations on 17 December, the AKP government has reassigned hundreds of police and judiciary personnel, removing them from investigation files, implicitly on account of being affiliated to the parallel structure within the state – for which we can read the Gulen Community. It has also amended the judiciary police regulation and obliged the police officers to inform the chiefs of their units of the details of legal investigations kept secret for the safety of the case. The regulation was immediately annulled by the Council of State. Having followed the events closely and expressed concerns for the rule of law and separation of powers in Turkey as early as 19 December, the EU welcomed this decision and urged Turkey to take all the necessary measures to ensure allegations of wrongdoing are addressed without discrimination.

Then came the government’s proposal to curb the power of the Higher Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) and to exert more control on the council via the Minister of Justice, causing criticism and concern from the EU over the functioning of democracy, particularly the independence of the judiciary. Amid this turmoil, PM Erdogan visited Brussels on 21 January 2014 to hold talks with EU leaders, the first in five years and planned even before Gezi protests. The day before his visit, Germany’s foreign minister Steinmeier said that it is a must for Turkey to return to the rule of law, implying that Turkey has dropped behind Copenhagen political criteria. By the same token, there have been calls from the EU for freezing talks with Turkey and for an independent international investigation into the rule of law in the country.

During Erdogan’s recent visit, the EU leaders have most probably expressed their growing unease at the state of democracy and rule of law in Turkey behind closed doors and stated in public that Turkish PM gave them reassurances about their concerns. On 24 January the government suspended the HSYK bill, giving rise to claims that EU leaders’ advice in Brussels and Stefan Füle’s two letters to Ankara have been effective on this decision. Both the opposition and the EU appreciated the suspension of the bill, assuming that it was shelved permanently. Nevertheless it was carried down from the shelf before very long and the Parliament has passed the bill on 15 February, eliciting reaction from the EU that this law represents a regression of judicial independence.

Only one week before passing this bill, the Parliament had adopted another controversial legislation which limits the freedom of expression via restrictions on internet use. European Parliament President Martin Schulz described the bill as a step back in an already suffocating environment for media freedom, and European Commission’s spokesman on enlargement, Peter Stano, stated that this law needs to be revised in line with European standards. In parallel with this, Human Rights Watch, in a recent report warns about the Turkish government’s growing intolerance of political opposition, public protest and critical media. Turkey is also on the Risk List of Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which designates the spots where CPJ documented the most significant deterioration of the media climate during 2013.

The AKP government has so far seemed to be concerned with punishing the investigators and critiques instead of rooting out corruption. Besides, Erdogan’s war against the so-called parallel structure is far from being convincing in the face of numerous surfacing of the Gulen Community’s influence over the police and the judiciary way before these graft probes. Thus, the question arises as to whether or not the AKP and PM Erdogan would be bothered to intervene in such unlawful actions as long as they do not target themselves.

In this period of deep crisis, the AKP has received the support of the Kurdish political actors, particularly PKK and its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan because they think that the peace process initiated by the AKP might come to a stop without an AKP government led by PM Erdogan. Hence, they take sides with the AKP against the Gulen Community which is known to be against these peace negotiations carried out in co-operation with Ocalan. The EU welcomes AKP’s bid for peace and urges it to do more on this issue by going beyond the reforms in the democratisation package PM Erdogan announced on 30 September 2013, which eased the usage of the Kurdish language in education, political propaganda and daily life.

In addition, the AKP still retains the support of almost all of its voters, even though it might lose a considerable amount of vote in the local elections. The previous local elections were the only case where the AKP did not increase but lost votes during its eleven years in power. It was due both to the electoral system which does not favour the first party in local elections as much as it does in the general elections and to the economic crisis which did not affect Turkey severely. However, at present the economy is more fragile after the graft scandal and the consequent political turmoil which has apparently spooked investors, giving rise to Turkish Lira’s record laws.

According to Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, the AKP sends contradictory signals to the EU, reaffirming its enthusiasm for joining the EU discursively and dropping behind the EU’s democratization criteria in practice. The EU, which perhaps is as good as the AKP government in sending mixed signals to Turkey, could use its most effective instrument, that is negotiations, to urge Turkey to address such issues of democracy as the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and the media, separation of powers, and fundamental freedoms and rights. Not unexpectedly it seems it will take quite a long time before this instrument is used effectively not only because of the European Parliament elections in May but also because of both local and presidential elections in Turkey in 2014. On the eve of both elections, more files and tapes of corruption are likely to be leaked to the media, which might in turn urge the AKP to keep a firmer hand on everything and PM Erdogan to act in an increasingly authoritarian manner, making it difficult for 2014 to be the year of the EU for Turkey.

In the longer term, however, the recent momentum given to the solution to the Cyprus issue might pave the way for the opening of Chapter 23 on rights and freedoms and Chapter 24 on justice and security, and the EU’s most effective instrument might contribute to democratization in Turkey, as was the case before the start of the accession talks in 2005. More generally, the current power struggle in Turkey within the ruling bloc and among the two most influential Islamist groups might open space for more democracy, especially if those segments of the society who demand more democracy and freedom raise their voice and mobilize a strong opposition.