Turkey’s EU bid: Losing Friends and Trouble Ahead
Introduction: the European Parliament’s
2013 Resolution on Turkey
On March 12th, the European Parliament (EP) adopted its yearly Resolution on Turkey during its monthly plenary session.[i] This non-binding document – which contains the views of the EP concerning Turkey’s EU bid – was passed by an overwhelming majority of 475 votes in favour, while 153 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted against and 43 abstained.[ii]
In the Resolution – a response to the European Commission’s 2013 Progress Report on Turkey – the EP reaffirms Turkey’s value as a strategic partner with regard to economy and trade, energy and migration. It particularly welcomes Turkey’s great efforts in harbouring the influx of Syrian refugees, as well as its pro-active role in Bosnia-Herzegovina and its decisions to establish a national Ombudsman office and sign a Readmission Agreement.
Nevertheless, it can be regarded as the most critical, sharpest Resolution up to date. The EP openly started to doubt Turkey’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law and its abilities to adhere to the ‘Copenhagen Criteria’ – i.e. the basic political and economic criteria which allow a country to apply for EU membership. In this regard, the EP implicitly expressed its concerns for the viability of Turkey’s EU membership by criticising the developments which have occurred in Turkey over the past months:
- the “heavy-handed” response by Turkish authorities and resulting loss of life following the Gezi Park protests during June 2013;
- the “excessively wide” scope of the Ergenekon coup case and related procedural shortcomings;
- the recent decisions by the Turkish government to intervene directly into an ongoing corruption investigation by making the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) subordinate to the Minister of Justice and sack or replace thousands of police officials following a HSYK-ordered, surprise graft probe into aides of long-standing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in December 2013;
- the tightening of Turkey’s Internet Regulation in February 2014, following the appearance of incriminating audio footage on the Internet indicating direct engagement by Erdoğan, his family and aides in corruption and influencing the media. The Internet Regulation gives Turkish authorities the opportunity to block webpages without a prior court order;
- the “ongoing systematic profiling” of civil servants, the police and security forces by the authorities on the basis of religious, ethnic and political affiliations;
- the increasing risk of undue intrusion by Turkish authorities into citizen’s lives following recent statements on the number of children women should have, on mixed-sex student residences and on the selling of alcohol;
- the limited independence of Turkish media outlets, who frequently engage in self-censorship and according to the leaked audio footage face direct interference by Turkey’s political brass. Consequentially, Turkey currently ranks 154th out of 179 in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.[iii]
The content and tone of the Resolution is exemplary for the atmosphere in the European Parliament and perhaps wider political circles in ‘Brussels’. EU policy-makers increasingly seem tired of Turkey’s current political leadership and its seeming inability and/ or unwillingness to reform. For instance, Andrew Duff, a British Liberal MEP – and once staunch supporter of Turkey’s EU bid – tweeted after the debate on the Resolution “Most pessimistic EP debate I can recall about Turkey”, while MEP Alexander Graf Lambsdorff called for a halt in Turkey’s EU accession negotiations “Relations between Turkey and the EU have gotten worse and this process needs to be deferred until Turkey cleans up its act.”[iv] Moreover, European Commissioner for Enlargement Štefan Füle aptly tweeted that the “(…) debate in the EP showed that Turkey is losing its supporters. Reflection and follow-up in Ankara needed to reverse this trend.”[v]
Do the Views of the European Parliament Matter?
Of course, one can rightfully ask: does it actually matter, this Resolution, which signals a loss of support in the European Parliament? After all, the European Parliament only plays a limited role in the EU Enlargement process, exercising its democratic right of oversight by issuing non-binding, own-initiative Resolutions. Moreover, the European Parliament itself is by no means uncontested: it has been struggling with its democratic legitimacy since its conception in 1979.
Yet, the EP’s views clearly do matter. The European Parliament – although recently labelled undemocratic and illegitimate by Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan[vi] – is the only EU Institution relatively open and conducive to Turkish views and stakeholders. The European Parliament traditionally has been a great adversary of Turkey – primarily due to the presence of scores of MEPs sceptical towards Turkey’s EU bid for various reasons – yet simultaneously it has been its greatest friend. The EP namely hosts a Friends of Turkey Intergroup, organises Turkey-related events on a frequent basis while seating various MEPs of Turkish descent. Disregarding it would thus be to shoot in one’s own foot.
At least equally important in this regard is that the views of the EP – although non-binding – influence the EU policy debate on Turkey while simultaneously providing a platform for Brussels’ political top-brass to voice its sentiments, intentions and expectations and relatively uninhibited manner.
What Will Happen at EU Level: Two Scenarios
So what does this mean? What can we expect from ‘Brussels’ in the coming months with regard to Turkey’s EU bid? Without doubt, the current events have marked an end to a period of careful optimism which came into being mid-2013 (following a relatively mild European Commission 2013 Progress Report; the restart of Turkey’s EU negotiation process by opening a chapter on regional policy and; the conclusion of a Readmission Agreement in turn for a roadmap towards EU visa exemption for Turkish citizens). What is clear as well is that, even though Turkey appears to be struggling with the Copenhagen Criteria, the EU will most probably not decide to end Turkey’s EU bid: the costs are simply too high to jeopardise relations with Turkey – a strategic partner in terms of economy and trade, energy, migration and security.
Instead, two possible scenarios exist. The first scenario holds that Turkey EU negotiations will continue. In view of recent events in Turkey, the European Union could decide to open negotiation Chapters 23 and 24 on judiciary and fundamental rights and justice and home affairs respectively. Such a scenario is currently preferred by the European Parliament as well as the European Commission, whom regard intensified negotiations a crucial element to prevent Turkey from drifting from the EU. Additionally, Turkish authorities themselves have consistently called for opening of additional chapters (up to this date, Turkey’s EU bid has been exceptionally slow with thirteen out of 35 negotiation chapters currently opened and only one chapter provisionally finalised).
The second scenario is preferred by various EU Member States. Under such a scenario – which clearly would be reminiscent to three year hiatus in accession negotiations before June 2013 – the EU would decide to freeze Turkey’s EU bid by abstaining from opening additional negotiation chapters. When Commissioner Füle argued to open Chapter 23 and 24, Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Dimitrios Kourkoulas – representing the current EU Presidency and speaking on behalf of the EU Member States – was quick to rebuke. Kourkoulas stated that opening negotiation chapters – which is often regarded as an encouraging gesture of good will – is not an “end itself”, while noting that it should be the Erdoğan Administration that should take the lead in furthering Turkey’s EU bid: “Turkey knows what it must do (…) the pace of negotiations will depend on Turkey’s ability and willingness to go forward and if we are to move then certain reforms will have to be undertaken.”[vii]
Looking Forward: Losing Friends
and Trouble Up-Ahead
Which scenario will turn out to be reality depends on various factors such as the Turkish authorities’ response to the ongoing graft probe and the recent mass-demonstrations following the death of Berkin Elvan – a fifteen year old boy who died after 269 days of coma resulting from an injury sustained by a tear gas canister during last year’s Gezi Park protests. Moreover, election outcomes will shape Turkey-EU dynamics. 2014 is an electoral ‘super year’ for Turkey, with local, national and presidential elections taking place. Despite increasing criticism of corruption, power abuse and nepotism, there are no clear indications that Erdoğan and his Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) will prove unable to consolidate their power. At EU level, elections for the European Parliament will take place in May. Taking into account the disgruntlement that exists with the EU among large parts of the European populace, expectation are that radical-left and right and non-aligned parties will win significantly.[viii] Logically, an increase in power Eurosceptic parties will not do any good to EU enlargement in general, while it might also result in a decrease in the number of ‘Friends of Turkey’ present in the EP.
One thing is crystal clear: either scenario would mean trouble for the Erdoğan Administration. Under the first scenario – although sustaining the impression that Turkey’s EU bid is moving forward – the EU would tighten the screws on the Erdoğan Administration by pressuring it to implement reforms which are in line with EU judicial and democratic standards. In this respect, Chapter 23 and 24 would constitute clear examples of the EU’s transformative power: they would be ‘sticks’ that the EU could use to align Turkey. The second scenario would constitute a return to square one, to the situation that existed prior to June 2013. Given the current volatility of the Turkish economy and the continued importance of the EU for Turkey (the EU is Turkey’s biggest trading and investment partner) this scenario would not be desirable for either party involved, yet the least for Turkey.
The EP’s Resolution – at first instance seemingly unimportant – thus signals that Turkey might be losing its remaining supporters in ‘Brussels’. Moreover, it might also be a prelude for a harsher EU stance on Erdoğan’s Turkey, which undoubtedly will adversely affect Turkey’s EU bid and annul the careful progress made over the past year. Therefore, the Erdoğan Administration should thread carefully, ensuring that Turkey does not lose even more friends on its way towards political consolidation.
Gerben K. Wedekind, Brussels Representative, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey)
Please cite this publication as follows:
Wedekind, Gerben K. (March, 2014), “Turkey’s EU bid: Losing Friends and Trouble Ahead”, Vol. III, Issue 3, pp.19-23, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=5541)
[i] European Parliament. (2014). TEXTS ADOPTED PART III at the sitting of Wednesday 12 March 2014. Pp. 328-338. Available at: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//NONSGML+TA+20140312+SIT-03+DOC+WORD+V0//EN&language=EN. (16 March 2014)
[ii] European Parliament. (2014). Turkey: credible commitment and strong democratic foundations needed, MEPs say. Available at: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/content/20140307IPR38301/html/Turkey-credible-commitment-and-strong-democratic-foundations-needed-MEPs-say. (16 March 2014)
[iii] Reporters without Borders (2014). 2013 World Press Freedom Index: Dashed Hopes After Spring. Available at: http://en.rsf.org/press-freedom-index-2013,1054.html. (16 March 2014)
[iv] EUobserver. (2014). Boy’s death spurs anti-Erdogan feeling in EU parliament. Available at: http://euobserver.com/foreign/123435. (16 March 2014)
[v] Today’s Zaman. (2014). Turkey is losing supporters in EU, Füle says. Available at: http://todayszaman.com/news-341921-turkey-is-losing-supporters-in-eu-fule-says.html (16 March 2014)
[vi] Hurriyet Daily News. (2013). I don’t recognize European Parliament decision, Turkish PM Erdoğan says. Available at: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/i-dont-recognize-european-parliament-decision-turkish-pm-erdogan-says.aspx?pageID=238&nID=48730&NewsCatID=338 (16 March 2014)
[vii]EUobserver. (2014). Boy’s death spurs anti-Erdogan feeling in EU parliament. Available at: http://euobserver.com/foreign/123435. (16 March 2014)
[viii] Pollwatch. (2014). What the polls say. Available at: http://www.pollwatch2014.eu/ (16 March 2014)