On July 31, one day after Turkey’s Constitutional Court narrowly ruled to allow the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to remain open (see EDM, July 31), the country’s parliament finally went into recess for the summer. It is not expected to reconvene until October 1 (CNNTurk, August 1). As a result, the AKP appears unlikely to initiate any legislative changes before fall. However, even as they welcome the Constitutional Court’s verdict, EU officials have already made it clear that they expect the AKP to use its unexpected reprieve to restart Turkey’s stalled EU accession process by finally passing a series of long overdue reforms.
After coming to power in November 2002, the AKP caught the EU by surprise by continuing and accelerating the reform process initiated by the previous administration. In October 2005, in return for an understanding that it would open its ports and airports to ships and planes from the Republic of Cyprus, Turkey officially began full accession negotiations. But, over the months that followed, the AKP neither introduced any more reforms nor honored its pledge to open its ports and airports to Cypriot ships and planes.
Despite their frustration, in fall 2006 EU officials admitted that, with a general election due in Turkey by November 2007 at the latest, it was unrealistic to expect the AKP to pass any reforms in the run-up to an election campaign. Opinion polls were already suggesting that Turkish public support for EU accession was in decline, not least because many Turks were finally beginning to realize that EU membership would mean ceding a measure of sovereignty to Brussels. Their reservations were compounded by suspicions that, even if the government implemented all of the reforms demanded by the EU, racial and religious prejudice in some key member states would prevent Turkey from ever completing the accession process. As a result, the AKP made only passing references to the EU in the run-up to the general election of July 22, 2007; although it was nevertheless fiercely criticized by its two main opponents—the nationalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP)—for the concessions it had allegedly already made to Brussels.
Any hopes that the EU had entertained that the AKP would restart the reform program after its resounding election victory on July 22, 2007, were swiftly dashed. Over the next eight months, the AKP focused almost exclusively on trying to find ways to lift the headscarf ban in Turkish universities. The sole concession to EU pressure was a minor amendment to the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which made it a criminal offense to denigrate “Turkishness” (see EDM, January 8). Once the case for the AKP’s closure was filed on March 14 (see EDM, March 17), the government was able to argue—now with considerable justification—that it was difficult to introduce any major policy initiative at a time when it faced imminent dissolution. However, with the threat lifted by the Constitutional Court’s ruling on July 30, the EU has already made it clear that the AKP has run out of excuses.
“Now it is the time to get back to normal and re-energize the reforms with a broad consensus and based on dialogue with all,” said European Commissioner for Enlargement Olli Rehn after the announcement of the court’s verdict (Anadolu Ajansi, July 31).
“There is now no obstacle to energetically applying the reform program,” noted Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik (Radikal, Hurriyet, Milliyet, August 1).
But, with parliament not due to reconvene until October 1, the first indication of whether the AKP has rediscovered its EU vocation is likely to be its willingness not to introduce more democratizing reforms but to make concessions over Cyprus. The leaders of the two communities on the island have agreed to begin a new round of negotiations to resolve the 24 year-old division of Cyprus on September 3 (see EDM, July 30). Over the next few weeks, Turkey is likely to come under increased pressure from the EU to encourage Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat to reach an agreement with Greek Cypriot President Demetris Christofias or—at the very least—not to attempt to interfere in the process and prevent the two Cypriots from coming to an understanding between themselves.
On July 31, in a televised address which had been recorded before the announcement of the Constitutional Court’s decision, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan declared that there had been no change in the government’s policy on Cyprus.
“We will not accept any solution which does not include bi-communality, political equality and the maintenance of an effective Turkish guarantee. Nobody should expect us to take a step backwards,” he said (CNNTurk, NTV, HaberTurk, July 31).
However, the reality is that no solution is possible without all sides making concessions; the only question is what they will be.