international analysis and commentary

Turkey and Europe: who is drifting away?


Last October, the European Commission presented its 2012 Progress Report for Turkey. Since 1998, the annual document provides an assessment of Turkey’s progress towards the fulfillment of the criteria set to obtain full European Union membership, highlighting both the country’s achievements and shortcomings. Although over the years, Turkey’s high political echelons seem to have grown accustomed to the mixed feedback received by the EU; yet this year’s document triggered a wave of strong criticism, as its outspoken and concerned depiction of the status of Turkey’s democracy offers an accurate snapshot of the current status of EU-Turkey relations.

Even in its introductory section, the 2012 Progress Report does in fact provide a no-frills analysis of where Turkey stands vis-à-vis the European Union and its democratic standards. Not only does it stress Turkey’s unilateral suspension of relations with the Council’s presidency because of Cyprus’ temporary EU presidency, but the report expresses “serious concerns with regard to Turkish statements and threats”. In fact, the Cyprus issue stands as the single, most critical question Turkey needs to face if it wants to see substantive progress towards EU membership. Since 2006, the negotiations on eight of the thirty-five chapters Turkey needs to align itself with have been suspended, because of the country’s firm refusal to recognize the Republic of Cyprus, and its continuing and solitary support of the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Unless this changes, these eight chapters will remain suspended, even assuming a successful progress and, eventually, full compliance on all the remaining chapters.

Turkish domestic politics also has a primary role in the 2012 Progress Report, especially with regard to three issues: the trials for the Ergenekon case (an alleged criminal network with possible ties to Turkish ultra-nationalist figures), the Sledgehammer case (an alleged plan for a military coup d’état) and the Kurdish issue. As for the two trials, the European Commission expressed its concerns over “the rights of the defense, lengthy pre-trial detention and excessively long and catch-all indictments”. It also deplored the general lack of transparency in dealing with witnesses and in managing the evidence.

On the Kurdish issue, the Commission flagged the lack of any visible progress since 2009, when the current government launched an initiative called the “Democratic Opening”, which failed to produce any tangible result. The report highlights how this initiative has been shelved, and how, despite some degree of inter-party dialogue, the government still has to come up with an alternative strategy.

In sum, the Commission stressed that there seem to be persisting flaws in Turkey’s management of the Ergenekon/Balyoz trials and no significant progress on the Kurdish issue.

Its assessment seems even more negative when it comes to the broader record of Turkey’s human rights: the report highlighted the worsening conditions of freedom of expression and restrictions to freedom of the media.

The publication of the report triggered a salvo of criticism from Turkish officials, who attacked  the contents of the document and the allegedly biased stance of the European Commission. Turkey’s Minister for EU Affairs and Chief Negotiator Egemen Bagis claimed this year’s report openly aims at delaying the country’s progress towards full membership. In a note, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs labeled the document as “unbalanced”, claiming “Turkey’s constructive approach to the Cyprus issue is well-known”, stating that Ankara would “expect the EU to contribute to a solution rather than being a party to the Cyprus problem”. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan only added to it, unilaterally setting 2023 (Turkey’s 100th anniversary) as the ultimate deadline for EU membership, and arguing that Cyprus should not have been allowed to join the EU in 2004, defining that decision “a serious mistake, [a mistake that] continues with increasing effects”.

Fourteen years after the first Turkey Progress Report issued by the EU, both sides are progressively getting closer to laying their cards on the table. Several EU member states have become increasingly vocal in expressing their aversion towards Turkey’s potential admission to the European Union, and Turkey is well aware of the political weight such positions have over its chances to achieve that goal. At the same time, Turkey reached a point in which it seems definitively more eager to move alongside the European Union and reaffirm its ownership of domestic politics-related decision-making, rather than seeking full compliance with the EU’s rules. In today’s strongly polarized domestic political environment, chasing EU membership becomes a secondary issue, if not a liability – especially so as Turkish public opinion has lost any interest.

In economic terms, Turkey managed to pull through the global economic crisis with flying colors, averaging a GDP growth of +4.3% in the 2001-2011 period, and marking +9.16% and +8.49% in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Prime Minister Erdogan, emboldened by a staggering electoral result in 2011, when his party obtained 49.8% of the votes, knows he can count on solid political and electoral consensus. Investing such political capital in reform attempts that would alienate voters does not come as a viable option, especially at a time when Turkey is approaching a key political phase.

The current debate over the constitutional draft is namely accompanied by the AKP attempt to introduce a presidential system, which would allow Erdogan to stay in power for another mandate or two. The main partner of the horse trading involved in promoting this constitutional reform is the anti-EU Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The fact that Erdogan hinted at the possibility to reintroduce the death penalty, something which would please the electorate of the MHP, is revealing of the extent to which Turkish politics is currently tuned to domestic considerations, rather than to the increasingly remote possibility of obtaining EU membership.

Despite these domestic dynamics, the EU, in an unexpected intergovernmental twist, might change its stance on the ultimate membership perspective for Turkey. In particular, French president Francois Hollande is not as staunchly opposed to the idea as his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy,  and is discussing options aimed at not losing Turkey. It might be too late – but not necessarily, if Turkish domestic politics finds a new  equilibrium.