Turkey and Europe: The Decisive Year Ahead
Turkey and Europe: The Decisive Year Ahead
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  1. Executive Summary
Report / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Turkey and Europe: The Decisive Year Ahead

Turkey is entering a critical year, in which its prospects for European Union (EU) membership are at make or break stage.

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Executive Summary

Turkey is entering a critical year, in which its prospects for European Union (EU) membership are at make or break stage. Domestic crises over the past two years have slowed national reform, betrayed the promise of a new constitution and undermined the political will needed to pursue accession negotiations. Its leaders show scant sign of changing course, at least before the March 2009 local elections, and EU states are applying little pressure to reinvigorate reform. Both sides need to recall how much they have to gain from each other and move quickly on several fronts to break out of this downward spiral before one or the other breaks off the negotiations, which could then well prove impossible to start again.

The dangers to Turkey of this loss of EU-bound momentum are already evident: weak reform performance, new tensions between Turks and Kurds, polarisation in politics and the potential loss of the principal anchor of this decade’s economic miracle. For Europe, the cost would be longer term: less easy access to one of the biggest and fastest-growing nearby markets, likely new tensions over Cyprus and loss of leverage that real partnership with Turkey offers in helping to stabilise the Middle East, strengthen EU energy security and reach out to the Muslim world.

Paradoxically, the reform program went off course in 2005 concurrently with the launch of EU membership negotiations. A first reason was bitterness that the Republic of Cyprus was allowed to enter in 2004, even though it was Turkish Cypriots, with Ankara’s support, who voted for the reunification deal (the Annan Plan) backed by the UN, the U.S. and the EU itself, while the Greek Cypriots voted it down. Then the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – Justice and Development Party) government lost motivation as France and Germany worked to block Turkey’s EU ambitions. It was disappointed by the failure of the European Court of Human Rights to overturn the Constitutional Court’s rejection of a hard-fought amendment to allow women university students to wear headscarves. It was also distracted by need to concentrate on other Constitutional Court cases brought by the secularist establishment that narrowly failed to block the AKP’s choice of president and to ban the party but deepened the polarisation of domestic politics and institutions. Simultaneously an up­surge in attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) focused attention increasingly on security issues.

Turkey now pledges to relaunch reforms with a new National Program for Adopting the EU Body of Law (the acquis communautaire). The draft text focuses on anti-corruption measures through regulation of state tenders and state incentives, judicial reform and more democratic laws governing political parties and elections. In particular, AKP officials mention lowering the 10 per cent national electoral threshold for a party to enter parliament; allowing 100 of that body’s 550 seats to be determined by nationwide proportional voting; and lengthening the short daily broadcasts in Kurdish and liberalising their content.

However, such plans are years late and fall short of EU expectations expressed in a 2007 Accession Partnership document and the European Commission’s annual progress reports. While the EU seeks many changes within a one- or two-year timeframe, Turkey envisages longer horizons. Instead of showing determined political commitment to the EU process, some top Turkish leaders have preferred to adopt an injured tone of complaint about Brussels’ demands and criticism. Above all, implementation has lagged: despite brave talk that it would replace the Copenhagen Criteria the EU has used since the early 1990s to assess a candidate’s status with its own “Ankara Criteria”, Turkey has passed only one sixth of a self-developed list of 119 legal reform measures announced in April 2007. Most disappointingly, the AKP has also dropped its prime promise in that year’s election campaign of a new, truly democratic constitution.

This slowdown comes just as Turkey’s initiatives to encourage openness and calm tensions in the region are showing how much it can do to advance EU foreign policy goals. Ankara has helped de-escalate crises over Iran’s nuclear policy and Lebanon; mediated proximity talks between Syria and Israel; and opened a new process of contacts with Armenia and cooperation with Iraqi Kurds. It is also supporting promising new talks on the reunification of Cyprus, where a settlement could provide a critical breakthrough for its relationship with the EU over the next year. Such initiatives helped win Turkey a two-year seat on the UN Security Council from January 2009. Conversely, however, a failure to live up to the commitment made in 2005 to open seaports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic in 2009 would risk anti-membership EU states seeking to suspend Turkey’s accession negotiations.

EU member states should seize the chance to fix past mistakes over Cyprus by prioritising success in the new negotiations on the island and do more to encourage Turkey to revitalise its reform effort. EU politicians must stop pushing the qualifying bar ever higher for Turkey and restate that they stand by their promise of full membership once all criteria are fulfilled. For its part, Turkey should be less sensitive to slights and stop treating the EU as a monolithic bloc. It should take care to avoid the trap of self-exclusion, keep its foot in the still open door and, like the UK and Spain before it, refuse to take “no” for an answer.

Istanbul/Brussels, 15 December 2008

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