Turkish Government and Opposition React to EU Commission’s Progress Report

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 206

On November 9, the European Commission published its 2010 progress report on Turkey’s performance in the accession process. Against the background of the declining popularity of EU membership in Turkey, the report has raised interest in the EU process. Yet, it remains to be seen if this renewed attention might really re-energize Turkey’s long-stalled membership drive.

Turkish-EU relations entered a period of stalemate in the second half of the decade, which followed a period where the rapid pace of reforms helped Turkey secure a date for the start of accession talks in 2005. The causes of this deadlock have appeared enigmatic, as both the Turkish government and the EU highlighted each other’s mistakes. European circles criticized the slow-down in the Turkish government’s political reform agenda, and its uncompromising position on the Cyprus dispute. Ankara’s resistance to opening its ports to Greek Cypriot vessels was a case in point from the EU perspective. For the Turkish government, by contrast, factors internal to the EU were largely responsible for the slow progress. The EU was unable to remove the obstacles created by some anti-Turkish member states, such as the Greek Cypriot or French veto against the opening of negotiating chapters or the debate on “privileged partnership” initiated by the French and German leaders. More importantly, the Turkish government has complained that the EU has failed to fully reciprocate the reforms delivered by Turkey, and has treated the Turkish Cypriots unjustly (EDM, June 29, 2009).

As the mutual blame game led nowhere, there were concerns as to whether Turkish-EU relations might grind to a halt. The debate following the 2008 progress report, where the EU again urged Turkey to take reforms more seriously, coincided with many international experts advancing the provocative argument that 2009 would be a make or break year (EDM, January 12, 2009). Although the Turkish government streamlined its efforts for preparation towards membership in 2009, through the establishment of a new ministerial post for EU affairs, nothing the Turkish government accomplished was close to a breakthrough that could end the stalemate. As a result, Turkish-EU relations remained in its rather stagnant state throughout 2009 and 2010, though none of the parties dared to take steps that might end the membership process.

The 2010 progress report did not contain any elements of surprise, as it was largely written in a balanced manner in both its criticism and praise of the Turkish government’s performance (www.avrupa.info.tr, November 9; Hurriyet, November 10). Overall, it was based on the commission’s earlier position that Turkey will have to recognize that it is subject to a rigorous set of criteria for accession, similar to those applied to other candidates, and Turkey should focus on maintaining a convincing track record and avoid any expectation of short-cuts. Similarly, the EU is also expected to be credible so that it could provide Turkey with a legitimate membership prospect. The report also retained another theme which has attracted greater sympathy in recent years, that Turkey’s new foreign policy activism could be an asset for EU’s external relations.

Overall, the report underlined Turkey’s mixed progress towards aligning its own regulations with the EU. While the EU recognized the improvements in immigration, it also underlined other areas where Turkey needed to undertake further reforms. Again, in foreign policy issues, while the EU welcomed Turkey’s constructive role and contribution to energy security, it also noted that no major initiatives were undertaken on the Cyprus issue, urging it to play a more constructive role

In a development which was welcomed by the opposition parties and other groups critical of the government, the report pointed out Turkey’s shortcomings on many issues pertaining to political and cultural rights. It raised growing concerns about the freedom of the press, the ongoing problems in the treatment of minorities, and the inability of the government to produce any tangible results through the Kurdish initiative. While the report welcomed the steps towards democratization and supported the recent constitutional referendum package, which introduced some changes to the composition of high courts, it expressed concern over presidential appointments to those institutions as well as some university presidents. In anticipation of the government’s likely drive for rewriting the constitution following the 2011 elections, EU sources also noted the importance of building consensus for future constitutional reforms.

The opponents of the AKP preferred to highlight those aspects of the EU’s view of Turkey, which are critical of the government’s track record on individual rights. They particularly highlight parts of the report listing the prosecution of journalists, writers or politicians for their expression of opinions. Also, many experts attending a panel discussion in Ankara on November 11 agreed that, though the report overall offered a balanced account of Turkey’s progress, its critical tone towards certain practices of the government has never been clear.

Ironically, government sources also welcomed the report, arguing that it largely met Turkey’s expectations. Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, interpreted the report’s affirmation of Turkey’s new foreign policy as an indication that discussion on whether Turkey was shifting its strategic axis was baseless. Yet, Davutoglu criticized the EU for its unfair assessment of the situation in Cyprus, arguing that the current situation on the island was not of Turkey’s own making and that Ankara could not be expected to solve the problem in isolation. A press release posted on foreign ministry’s website reiterated Davutoglu’s views on the issue (www.mfa.gov.tr, November 9).

Similarly, Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and State Minister for EU Affairs, Egemen Bagis, were positive about the report as the EU’s affirmation of Turkey’s place in the EU. Responding to the criticism in relation to limiting individual rights and freedom of expression, Erdogan denied those charges, arguing that there cannot be a completely uncontrolled exercise of freedom in any democracy. Regarding the specific cases of rights’ violations or legal investigations mentioned in the report, Erdogan maintained that they were committed by the judiciary, not the government.

Overall, both the government and the opposition seem to prefer to maintain their commitment to the EU, because they can manipulate it to support their own positions politically, as they see fit.