Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan selected Istanbul parliamentary deputy Egemen Bagis as the new chief negotiator for Turkey’s membership negotiations with the European Union. Erdogan also moved the Secretariat General for EU Affairs (ABGS) from the Foreign Ministry to the Prime Minister’s office under Bagis, who was promoted to the rank of state minister (www.cnnturk.com, January 9, 10). The move came amid criticism that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government had stalled the EU accession process.
The post of chief negotiator was previously held by the current Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, who had filled that position at the same time as his other ministerial appointments in the successive AKP governments. Since the beginning of the memberships talks with the EU in 2005, Babacan acted as the chief negotiator parallel to his positions as economics minister and later foreign minister. The government’s reluctance to appoint a “full-time” negotiator had been a constant source of criticism and was taken by the pro-reform circles as a sign of the low priority that the government attached to the EU project. Especially since Babacan’s assumption of the post of foreign minister, it has been clear that this double assignment was unsustainable, as it became increasingly difficult for Babacan to fulfill his responsibilities as chief negotiator. At the beginning of 2008, Babacan said “2008 will be the year of the EU; you will be surprised [by our reforms]” (Sabah, February 3, 2008). As 2008 closed, however, Turkish-EU relations hit a low point, with no major reform recorded on critical issues. For reformists, 2008 was a lost year (Taraf, December 31, 2008).
Indeed, myriad international crises taking place in Turkey’s neighborhood engulfed Babacan’s agenda. Turkey’s policy of asserting itself as a major actor in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus coincided with its new role as a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Leading Turkish experts interpreted this growing foreign policy activism as essentially detrimental to the EU project.
Having identified a trend among Turkey’s political elite of declining enthusiasm for “full membership” and a growing preference for “privileged partnership,” Ziya Onis, a professor of international relations, argued that “The counterpart of this in the foreign policy realm is an approach based on ‘soft Euro-Asianism’ in which … an attempt is made to develop a friendly relationship with all neighboring countries but without the EU providing the main axis or the reference point for foreign policy” (“Recent Foreign Policy Attitudes in Turkey,” DIIS Brief, November 2008).
In a December 2008 Report, the International Crisis Group maintained that 2009 would be the “make or break” year. The report expected both sides’ attitude at this critical threshold to determine the future direction of Turkey’s European Union vacation, and presented two alternative paths: a breakthrough or a collapse of membership talks. Though recognizing the EU’s own mistakes, the report put the blame for the poor status of relations on the Turkish government’s failure to keep up with the EU’s reform expectations (“Turkey and Europe: The Decisive Year Ahead,” International Crisis Group, Report No: 197, December 15, 2008, www.crisisgroup.org).
The urgency placed on the year 2009 stems from the fact that the EU will review Turkey’s progress on the issue of ports this year, which is viewed by some as a de facto ultimatum. In 2006 the EU suspended negotiations on eight chapters, because Turkey refused to open its air and sea ports to Greek Cypriot vessels. Babacan had earlier played down the EU pressure and rejected treating this review as an ultimatum. He instead pointed his finger at the EU for stalling in the accession process (Zaman, December 19).
The appointment of a state minister whose sole responsibility it is to lead membership negotiations, along with the new institutional arrangement, is taken as an indicator of the government’s decision to refocus its attention on the EU project. EU representatives welcomed Bagis’s appointment. Erdogan is scheduled to visit Brussels on January 19, the first such trip in four years (Milliyet, January 10).
It remains to be seen, however, whether the resumption of the EU project will be geared toward full membership or whether Turkey will settle for some sort of “privileged partnership.” Erdogan’s appointment of the chief negotiator from the AKP’s own ranks, instead of a bureaucrat, and bringing the ABGS under his authority indicate his determination to maintain full control over the membership talks and proceed at the AKP’s own pace. Some observers are critical of this decision: “independent of Mr. Bagis’s appointment, [the danger] is that the government was trying to politicize its relationship with Europe and move the process away from the bureaucracy to its own appointees,” Today’s Zaman wrote (January 11).
Since it is no secret that Euro-skeptic arguments enjoy popularity within Erdogan’s own cabinet, Bagis will have to bargain with other ministers to revitalize the accession process. One advantage he will have in this battle will be his close association with Erdogan. Since joining party before the 2002 elections, Bagis, 38, had been a member of parliament and served in the party and government in many capacities. Most importantly, he was renowned as one of Erdogan’s top advisors in foreign relations. Since the 2007 elections, he also has been the AKP’s deputy chairman for foreign affairs. With his fluency in English, Bagis has taken part in negotiations on many international problems. He received his education in American schools and worked in the United States prior to joining the party. Given this experience, he has played a major role in the conduct of Turkish-American relations. Bagis has been one of the staunchest advocates of Erdogan and has commanded his respect and support. Although Erdogan has occasionally replaced his other top aides because of political disagreements or public pressure, Bagis has managed to maintain his place in Erdogan’s close circle (Hurriyet Daily News, January 10).
The future of Turkish-EU relations might depend on what role Bagis foresees for himself and whether he will cave in to the growing anti-EU sentiment. If he can chart an independent role as the chief negotiator and develop an assertive portfolio to revitalize the membership talks, he might be the new hero of liberal-reformists. In this case, he could use his ties to Erdogan as leverage to overcome intra-cabinet obstacles. He might as well continue to act as Erdogan’s man, in which case he is more likely to maintain the same populist attitude, continuing to blame the EU for the shortcomings in the process and avoiding major reforms.