Following the recent developments in Turkey, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in cooperation with TUSKON hosted an expert meeting “Turkey – back to old days? The current state of EU-Turkey relations”. The discussion was moderated by European Policy Centre’s (EPC) policy analyst Amanda Paul and the experts taking part in the debate were MEP Sir Graham Watson, President of ALDE Party, Dr. Hans-Georg Fleck, Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom’s resident representative in Turkey, and Serdar Yesilyurt, TUSKON EU Representation’s Executive Director.
The discussion revolved around the recent events in Turkey and how these have influenced Turkish relations with the European Union (EU). The international community is worried about receding democratic standards and freedom of media in Turkey following the introduction of two new laws to the Parliament; one on judiciary reform and another restricting Internet usage. Democracy in Turkey has never been fully consolidated despite encouraging developments and reforms. Corruption allegations that surfaced in December have resulted in government attempts to stop investigation by firing and reassigning hundreds of police officers and investigators. Allegations have also prompted amendments to laws and regulations, as well as a media blackout.
The allegations initially involved the sons of three government ministers, though later the prime minister’s son as well as several businessmen close to the prime minister became linked to the scandal. Although the public widely expected politicians involved to resign, this did not materialise. Instead, the investigation was stopped with police officers and investigators involved in the case either being fired or reassigned, and a further reshuffling of police and judges also took place. The new law on judiciary will give the government a power over judges. If the bill is signed by the president, it will erase the separation of powers to a significant extent and will have a serious impact on rule of law in Turkey.
The EU’s role has been limited. When Prime Minister Erdogan was visiting Brussels in January, the EU criticised the actions taken to cover up corruption allegations as well as the introduction of new bills. This criticism resulted only in a momentary freezing of the judiciary bill, which resurfaced again last week and was passed by the parliament. It is now waiting for the president’s signature. Despite a certain level of expectation that President Gul will refuse to sign the bills and declare that he disagrees with the prime minister’s policies, this is unlikely to happen. In fact, since the event took place, President Gul has signed the Internet bill.
Prime Minister Erdogan has claimed that the corruption allegations are a plot against him by the US, Israel, and the media, and that there exists a parallel state in Turkey that is trying to overthrow his government. These claims are not convincing despite the existence of forces in Turkey that tried to undermine AKP when it came to power. However, after having spent a decade in power, claims that corruption allegations represent a coup attempt is not credible as the EU has made clear. The EU has encouraged Turkey to face the consequences of the allegations.
MEP Sir Graham Watson believes that the EU-Turkey relationship can be mutually beneficial if it is managed correctly. He reminded that Turkey has been told about the EU’s concern over its actions and that Turkey seems to be moving away, instead of towards EU membership. The elimination of dissident voices within the incumbent AKP party, the violent repression of the Gezi Park protest and the increasingly authoritarian turn taken by Erdogan’s administration with clear disregard for the separation of powers, have been increasingly worrying with the EU and the wider international community. At the same time, there are many areas where Turkey has played a positive role, such as in the relation to Syria during the current crisis, in constructive dialogue with regional countries and in NATO and G20 talks. Thus, the EU should not give up on Turkey but it should let it know that there are lines that cannot be crossed.
The EU-Turkey relationship has lasted for over 60 years; in 1999, Turkey was finally given a candidate status and the membership negotiations started in 2005. The start of the negotiations was seen as a tremendous step forward, especially from a Turkish point of view, but they have not progressed without a hitch. The talks were in standstill for a few years and until the end of 2013, when a new chapter was open for negotiation and the talks seemed to be moving forward again.
There have been significant improvements and reforms in Turkey. The country has finally rid of the military dominance in its politics and its economy is thriving. The AKP party has benefited from these achievements, especially in economic terms, as it directly translates to better living standards for the majority of the population. There has also been great progress on the Kurdish issue, a problem that seemed unsolvable for decades. However, the fact that Turkish politics lack a proper opposition is a matter of concern for the country’s political future. Indeed, the main opposition party is deprived of visionary leadership and policies. The upcoming elections in March offer hope of change within the political elites in charge in Ankara but as long as the opposition remains largely unorganised, it is unlikely that things will amend drastically.