EU-Turkey relations: the wasted rendezvous and thereafter (1)

The EU and Turkey began accession negotiations on Oct. 4, 2005, following a laborious day when the EU side skilfully conditioned the full membership with several minefields, particularly the open-endedness of the process. Nevertheless the result was there and Turkey, as the most controversial candidate in the history of enlargement toward European countries has been rewarded for four years of relentless reforms (2002-2005). The outcome was also the coronation of a very long journey that started early 19thcentury, of what the historians call “Westernization”.

With its EU candidate status confirmed, Turkey has undergone remarkable changes between 1999 and 2005. The membership was backed by an important part of the society aspiring to transform and democratize itself. It has led to a period of unprecedented political and economic stability. That happened despite all odds.

But the start of negotiations also corresponded to the start of negative trends in both sides. In Europe, particularly among the Christian Democrats of old Europe a nerviness has emerged in view of the seriousness of a future Turkish membership.

In Turkey, the government, having successfully reached the last phase before the accession, has almost synchronically slowed the preparatory works down. Starting late 2005, Turkey’s accession process and its broader relations with Europe have continuously degraded, to end up in nowhere today.  

It is no exaggeration to say that in the history of the EU enlargement, starting on 1973, the first spectacular failure is the candidacy of the Republic of Turkey. This failure is the making of both parties and its consequences are unexpectedly somber. Turkey is decoupling rapidly from the West, sealing its de-Westernization drive and becoming increasingly authoritarian while Europe looks powerless to deal with an ever-aggressive Turkey, which has become a security issue for the continent.

On the European front, already before October 2005 Christian Democrats in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands have been vocal in their opposition to Turkey’s membership through systematic negative statements.  

European policymakers, at bilateral as well as Brussels’ levels never dared to take any pedagogical initiative toward public opinions who were massively uninformed about the enlargement of the Union. And on Turkey, they were massively packed with clichés. Policymakers surfed instead on these negative or no opinions.

The open-endedness of talks and the staunch Christian Democrat hostility emptied the content of the conditionality principle. Conversely, a kind of “negative conditionality” took over, whereby member states having a difficult relationship with Turkey like Cyprus and France, abused the negotiation process by putting unrealistic requests to Turkey. As a result, eighteen out of thirty five negotiation chapters were blocked.

Such course was fatal; but, with some distance, it looks as though it was deliberate. For some member states, the more Turkey would sail away from the Union, the more Europe would get rid of the “Turkey burden” and be able to conclude ad hocdeals (arms sales, Flüchtlingsdeal)without being concerned by candidate’s democratic credentials and its European obligations. 

On the Turkish front, five factors seem to have been determinant in the loss of interest.

First, the lack of a clear membership perspective has acted as a powerful domestic disincentive and was used by anti-EU circles against the government. Statements against the membership have had discouraging effects regarding the likelihood of full membership, among the population.

Second, the ruling AKP’s constituency felt ostracized when on 29 June 2004 a landmark decision of the European Court of Human Rights, although not an EU institution, failed to consider the headscarf ban in the academia as an attempt to the right to education enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, a ban inherited from old secularist elites. The decision of the Court had a devastating effect on the ruling party’s constituency.

Third, disappointment was felt at EU’s failure to adopt a well-adjusted Cyprus policy for the divided island, to honour its moral obligations vis-à-vis the north where a UN sponsored plan for the reunification (Annan Plan) was largely accepted in a referendum. Thereon the EU was unable to prevent the Republic of Cyprus to abuse the stalemate for hampering Turkey’s negotiations. Today, after some distance in time, one wonders if the reunification of Cyprus would have succeeded, Turkey’s EU venture might have been in a quite different path.

Fourth, Turkish governments in line with the EU criteria have introduced radical reforms for the benefit of citizens of Kurdish extract, by lifting the ban on education in Kurdish language and the abolition of the death penalty that benefited automatically the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan.

Concomitantly, the Kurdish side (PKK) has declared a ceasefire, right after the capture of Öcalan, but which was never reciprocated by the military establishment still having the upper hand in the State apparatus. Rather, PKK positions were attacked. Consequently the PKK ended the ceasefire on 1 June 2004. Resumption of violence was widely interpreted as a direct consequence of EU-inspired democratic reforms considered as heartening Kurds’ endless political demands, endangering thereby the unity of the nation.

Fifth, it was disclosed at the hearings of Ergenekon trial that in early 2004, military top brass has requested the Prime Minister Erdoğan to slow down the EU process.

Turkish hesitations started to display during 2005. The government gave the impression that it was merely satisfied with the outcome so far and some pause if not backpedalling was now needed. It also wanted to transform this historic success into votes in the next elections, without pushing further the reform process. In 2006 the reforms were already eroding when the Anti-Terror Law and the Law on Police Duties and Powers were revised to take an illiberal track.

The second period of the Turkish retreat started in 2007–2008. Galvanized by the big win at the 2007 general elections, the government has fallen into overconfidence by belittling the West caught in the sub-prime crisis and by pretending that they do not, after all, need anyone but the “Great Turkey”, heir of the “Great Ottoman Empire”.

This period was also marked with the Arab revolts. Applauses were for Turkish political Islam who made spell “Islam” and “democracy” in the same sentence. Its stewardship for Arab countries was globally assumed. Combined with already overblown self-confidence, Turkey’s rulers increasingly felt as the bearers of an Islamic leadership, which was overtaking the humiliating EU venture. During that period Turkey became more and more visible regionally and internationally. Its economic performance, largely due the membership dynamic, was noteworthy. These facts have nourished the illusion that Turkey can make it by itself.

The last period of the retreat from EU has taken the shape of an overall retreat from anything Western. In 2013, the social peace was devastated in June by the harsh repression of a nonviolent civilian protest in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Later in the year, on December 17th and 25th, a huge corruption scandal involving Erdoğan, his family and his ministers exacerbated the uproar. A noticeable retreat from EU’s norms, standards, values and principles have started.

A version of this article was published by Le Monde Diplomatique this week and has been reprinted with permission. Part 2 will be published tomorrow.

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.