Istanbul, Turkey – It’s fair to say that the detailed machinations of European Union membership processes fail to spark the curiosity of many people, and most Turks appear to be among the least interested. The results of these talks, however, may result in a geostrategic pivot for this nation which stands with one foot in Europe, and the other in the Middle East.
As the years pass since the prospect of EU membership was formally mooted, and as the chances of Turkey actually becoming a full member of the bloc become increasingly blurry, more and more Turks believe that the country does not have a future in the international organisation.
The EU’s Eurobarometer public opinion survey shows that public support among Turkish citizens for the country’s EU membership dropped from 71 percent in 2004 to 36 percent in 2012.
A recent and relatively positive European Commission report and the subsequent decision to revive Turkey’s accession talks – which have been frozen for the past three years – have received little interest among Turkish people and media.
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This was not always the case. The early and mid-2000s were the heydays of EU-Turkey relations. The AKP-led government passed consequent democratisation packages, opening the way for Turkey’s accession talks that eventually kicked off in October 2005.
Back then, any tiny development on bilateral relations, reports published, decisions taken or statements made, would be headline news.
According to Dr Muzaffer Senel, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Sehir University, the EU’s financial crisis, the rise of right-wing parties in Europe in the late 2000s and Islamophobia were among the reasons behind the three-year stalemate between the EU and Turkey.
“The unresolved Cyprus dispute, consequent policies of Greek Cyprus within the EU, Turkey’s slow attitude with reforms until this year and, more recently, [the] emergence of Gezi Park protests were the other major reasons for the frozen relations,” he told Al Jazeera.
In late May, a minor sit-in protest against an urban development project in the heart of Istanbul mushroomed into countrywide rallies against the government after a violent police crackdown against protesters.
The EU’s decision to open a new chapter in the talks might have the capacity to renew Turkey’s interest in membership.
In a report released on October 16, the European commission praised Turkey’s reform efforts, notably “the adoption of an important judiciary reform package, the announcement of a democratisation package and the start of peace talks [with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or the PKK] for solution of the Kurdish issue”. Against this backdrop, the EU institution called for opening of “Chapter 22” – the section of talks which deals with regional policy issues – an idea subsequently agreed by EU foreign ministers.
The PKK is an outlawed armed Kurdish group active in the country for more than 30 years. Its demands gradually shifted over the decades, from Kurdish independence to autonomy and then to a fully democratised Turkey. The unprecedented direct talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader, were revealed at the end of 2012 and have been slowly progressing since.
A recently announced package of laws has made important reforms in the country, such as letting public employees wear headscarves, consenting to use Kurdish letters in names, allowing for privately funded education in the Kurdish language and proposing various methods to amend an electoral threshold that kept Kurdish parties out of parliament in the past. However, both Kurdish politicians and the PKK expressed their disappointment with the packages.
Ankara’s talks seem back in an atmosphere aiming for full EU membership
The soon-to-be-opened Chapter 22 relates to the peace talks in the areas of decentralisation and development of poorer regions.
Prominent EU expert Dr Can Baydarol told Al Jazeera that the decision to open a new chapter in the talks did not mean Turkey was now on a fast track to membership.
“The fact that France lifted its reserve on the opening of chapter 22 means that President Francois Hollande’s government has withdrawn its veto on Turkey’s EU membership. Consequently, as long as Germany has no objection, Ankara’s talks seem back in an atmosphere aiming for full EU membership,” he said.
Ankara hoped to start negotiations on Chapter 22 last June, after Hollande replaced Nicolas Sarkozy, whose government had blocked five chapters in opposition to Turkey’s EU bid.
However, anti-government riots – the Gezi Park protests – that rocked Turkey through the summer saw diplomatic rows between Ankara and the EU and some of member states, particularly Germany.
As a result, EU governments decided to delay last June’s decision to open the chapter until the release of the recently published European Commission report, as a rebuke for Turkey’s handling of the protests.
The time of the protests saw tough words on both sides, with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying that he did not recognise the European Parliament. Erdogan’s statement followed an European Parliament statement highly critical of Ankara’s attitude towards the anti-government demonstrations.
Senel believes that, in the coming days, the EU and Ankara will try to avoid the “restrained tension” that has been prevalent for the past three years.
“The EU progress report praised Ankara’s steps for a Kurdish solution and the recently adopted democratisation package, besides its criticism on Gezi Park protests,” said Senel. “The government perceived this as the EU beginning to make objective assessments.”
Turkey’s EU bid remains in a uniquely vague position, as various chapters of the necessary talks have been blocked by Cyprus, France – and the EU itself – for a variety of reasons.
The freezing of eight of the chapters from discussion stems from a 2006 EU decision condemning Turkey for refusing to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot ships and planes. The European Council also decreed that no other chapter would be finalised until Turkey had fulfilled this commitment.
In its recent report, the European Commission also recommended talks in two more chapters open as soon as possible: Chapter 23 – dealing with judiciary and fundamental rights – and Chapter 24 – about justice, freedom and security.
These two are seen among the key chapters in order to fix some of the crucial problems in Turkey, and for the EU to regain leverage over Ankara to push for further reforms.
Baydarol believes that these chapters should have been included in the talks far earlier.
“It is a shame for the EU to delay the opening of these chapters, while they cover the main areas of EU criticism towards Turkey. Germany and France seem in favour of commencing talks in these chapters, so I think the European Council meeting in December will see a positive decision in this direction.”
The European Commission’s recent report criticised Turkey’s legal framework, the judiciary and the frequent political intimidation that contribute to curbing freedom of expression.
The report also said that the “political climate continued to be marked by polarisation” through “an understanding of democracy as relying exclusively on parliamentary majority, rather than a participative process in which all voices are heard, and finally in an uncompromising stance in the face of dissent and a failure to protect fundamental rights and freedoms”.
“This was exemplified in late May and early June, when police used excessive force in response to a major wave of protests,” the European Commission said, also criticising cross-ownership and self-censorship in Turkish media institutions.
Cengiz Candar, a renowned political analyst and journalist, said that he did not believe Turkey could democratise on its own. “During the Gezi Park incidents, we have seen how this government can be driven to human rights violations and bullying when it feels free from the EU’s democratic mechanisms,” he wrote on his column in Turkish daily Radikal on Wednesday.
We are pleased that this year's progress report emphasises the important reforms Turkey has realised
Turkey’s reaction to the latest report was unusually positive.
“We are pleased that this year’s progress report emphasises the important reforms Turkey has realised,” EU Minister Egemen Bagis said.
However, he dismissed the report’s criticism of the government’s protest crackdown.
“We consider it important to emphasise that we will never view efforts that employ violence and illegal methods against the peace of our nation and people as a struggle for rights,” he said.
This remains in stark contrast to the reception given to the previous year’s “progress report”. Burhan Kuzu, a senior MP from the ruling party, furiously threw a copy of that report into the bin during a live televised show.
Baydarol said that the EU was going through profound structural changes and Turkey would be a part of a different EU when it eventually takes its place in the bloc.
“The EU is facing a serious economic crisis and therefore is in transformation. Today, englargement is not a priority for the international organisation,” he said.
Although opening a new chapter of talks will be important progress in the membership talks, it seems that much more will be needed to generate the required impetus – and public support – for the country’s EU bid.
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras