Turkish complexities confound EU

The recently released European Commission’s annual report on Turkey’s progress towards EU membership has criticised Ankara’s pace of reforms, but has not brought to light new challenges since accession talks began in October 2005.

Muslim composition and secular democracy make Turkey unique
Muslim composition and secular democracy make Turkey unique

This is the view of Ali Yurttagul, a member of the European Parliament and expert on asylum and immigration to Turkey.


“In 2004, the EU’s report on Turkey, which wasn’t really a progress report in the same sense, was very positive. The main message of the new report is the slowdown in pace of implementation, a stagnation if you will,” he said.


The EU has very high expectations of Ankara, but does not really comprehend its complexities, says Ibrahim Gunel, a columnist at the Turkish daily Radikal.


Turkey’s majority Muslim composition and its secular democracy make it a unique country, he says.


The Commission’s 2006 report describes the prosecutions and convictions for the expression of non-violent opinion as “a cause for serious concern”, while noting that the Turkish Grand National Assembly adopted 148 laws of a total 429 draft bills submitted since October 2005.


Penal code


The case of Hrant Dink, a journalist who has openly written about Armenian identity, is one example from a list of hundreds of writers, publishers, academics, journalists and human rights activists who have been prosecuted under Article 301 of the new penal code.


Charged with insulting Turkish identity for writing a series of articles on the Armenian genocide, the article allowed a court to hand Dink down a six-month suspended prison sentence on October 7. 


The Turkish government has consistently rejected Armenian demands that the loss of two million lives under the Ottoman empire can be described as genocide.


Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has since said that the government might consider amending Article 301.


“We are open to concrete proposals that will make clear the line between the crimes stipulated under article 301 and the right to criticism”

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 
Turkish Prime Minister

“We are open to concrete proposals that will make clear the line between the crimes stipulated under article 301 and the right to criticism,” he said in a speech to the public. 


Erdogan gave no indication as to when article 301 would be taken up in parliament, only that the “opposition” was behind the move.


He did indicate, however, that it would take time as “a change in mentality [among the judiciary] is needed to do that because it’s the job of people to implement laws. It’s a process that takes time”.


With regard to this new approach to freedom of speech in Turkey, Yurttagul, the member of European Parliament, says: “The commission has noted that Ankara is willing to modify Article 301, and it is appreciated, but it wants to see concrete steps. We don’t know in which direction it will be modified yet.”


Civil-military ties


The Commission’s 2006 report, while crediting Turkey for reform in the area of civil-military relations, says that overall “limited progress” had been made in aligning civil-military relations with EU practices.


To understand Turkey’s relationship with the military is to understand the very foundations of the modern republic. Turkey is a 99.8% per cent Muslim country, but operates as a secular state with religion kept strictly out of politics.


“Erdogan has hit a wall on Cyprus, he cannot make more concessions. After voting ‘yes’ to the Annan plan, there is nowhere to go. Europe has to give Turkey something in return” 

Hasan Unal,
scholar at Bilkent University, Ankara

This foundation was first laid in 1923 when the republic was established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a military man with democratic principles.


Turkish women were given the right to vote two years before their British counterparts in 1926 under Ataturk’s governance.


The military is therefore seen as a beacon of democracy and secularism, which safeguards the republic from becoming a theocracy like Iran. Any attack on the military is, unsurprisingly, seen as an attack on these principles.


Says Hasan Unal, a scholar at Bilkent University in Ankara: “EU countries don’t understand how important the military is in Turkey. The republic was set up by it. The military is the most modern and progressive part of the Turkish regime.”


Indeed, many Turks are concerned that if the military were to lose more power, particularly to the Islamist-leaning ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), the secular lifestyle they enjoy could be under threat.


These concerns were highlighted when the education ministry took over four years ago from the ministry of religious affairs the responsibility of overseeing all religious textbooks for elementary and high schools nationwide.


Stuck on Cyprus


Curiously, the most contentious issue in EU-Turkey relations may lie outside the country’s borders.


The European Commission report has given Turkey until mid-December to open its ports to Cypriot ships, or face unspecified consequences.

It says it will make “relevant recommendations” to EU leaders if Turkey does not meet its obligations towards Cyprus. Leaders may decide to freeze Turkey’s membership talks when they meet at a summit in Brussels on 14 and 15 December.


Turkey agreed last year to extend its customs union with the EU to Cyprus, which joined the bloc in 2004, but has not done so, with the result that Turkish ports and airports remain closed to Cypriot traffic.


Cyprus has been divided into a Greek-Cypriot south, which enjoys international recognition and is a full member of the EU since May 2004, and a Turkish-Cypriot north since 1974, when Turkey invaded the island after a coup by Greek Cypriots who supported union with Greece.


Turkey has about 40,000 troops on Cyprus.


Sticking point


Most Turks are tired of hearing about the Cyprus issue as they believe that it is just a sticking point that the EU uses to thwart Turkey’s struggle to be accepted.


They point to the fact that inhabitants of the Turkish north voted “yes” in 2004 to a plan by Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, to bring about reunification to the divided island.


The south’s Greek Cypriots, by contrast, overwhelmingly voted “no”.


For its part, the Turkish government says that “the Cyprus question is a political question and is not an obligation in the context of our accession process”.


Stumbling block


Erdogan has dismissed the possible collapse of the talks because of the Cyprus impasse, but acknowledged that some “chapters” might be held back.


Analysts believe that it might be a stumbling block, but that Erdogan has no cards left to play on the issue.


“Erdogan has hit a wall on Cyprus, he cannot make more concessions. After voting ‘yes’ to the Annan plan, there is nowhere to go. Europe has to give Turkey something in return,” Bilkent University’s Unal says.


However, Gunel, the columnist, disagrees on this point. He believes the Cyprus issue could be solved by a change of leadership.




“Turkey accepted the Annan plan, but the Greek Cypriot president Tassos Papadopulous rejected it. If Papadopulous were to fall from power, the problem could be solved,” Gunel says.


He adds that the stalemate has become more entrenched after the EU failed to keep its promise to end the economic isolation of northern Cyprus.


“According to the Nice Convention [one of the founding principles of the EU], Cyprus should not even really be a member of the EU as it quite clearly states if a country has a border problem it can not be accepted as an EU member,” Gunel says.


For now, though, Turks will have to wait for the outcome of the December talks in which 25 European leaders will discuss their EU path before anything more can be said about accession.

Source: Al Jazeera

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