Elected government has delivered strong economic growth but activists think prime minister Erdogan has a hidden agenda.
In front of tens of thousands of supporters, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan could not have been more direct as he targeted members of the European Parliament.
“Know your place,” he roared in mid-June.
A few days later, he declared that he “did not recognise” the EU legislature.
Erdogan was condemning the European Parliament’s criticism of “disproportionate and excessive use of force” against Turkish anti-government protesters.
The outbursts were just a few demonstrations of the prime minister’s recent fury towards European politicians and international media over their reactions to the anti-government protests which flared across Turkey in late May.
What is happening right now in Turkey, in my view, does not correspond to our understanding of the freedom to assemble, of freedom of expression.
The three-week uprising, known as the Gezi Park protests, saw a new blow hit to already shaky Ankara-Brussels relations – with critical statements, and some far from diplomatic rhetoric, flung around the continent throughout the crackdown on the protests.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was “appalled” by the way Turkey handled the uprising. “What is happening right now in Turkey, in my view, does not correspond to our understanding of the freedom to assemble, of freedom of expression,” she said.
The resulting diplomatic row saw each side summoning the other’s ambassador.
Merkel staunchly opposes Turkey’s full membership of the EU, and has frequently said that she would prefer to see Turkey as “a privileged partner”.
EU membership negotiations revolve around 35 “chapters” – each dealing with bringing a specific area of domestic policy in line with that of the member states.
So far, 17 chapters in Turkey’s accession talks remain blocked from discussion for various political reasons.
Despite the ongoing tension, an EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting on June 25 decided to resume talks, the first such bid following a three-year stalemate. However, facing pressure from a German-led group of state delegations over the police crackdown on protesters, European foreign ministers decided that the talks would not get underway before October.
Commission report key
And further complications may still arise before talks resume.
The European Commission is set to publish a progress report on Turkey on October 9, for consideration by EU foreign ministers before they open discussions on Chapter 22 of acquis negotiations – which deal with Turkey’s regional policy.
Following the agreement to resume talks, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle stressed that Berlin had to come up with a compromise.
“On the one hand we cannot act as if nothing had happened in the last days,” he told reporters. “On the other hand, we have to look for a strategy that satisfies the EU’s long-term interests.”
Meanwhile, Croatia, which started accession talks on the same day at Turkey in 2005, became a full member on July 1
Dr Natalie Tocci, deputy director of the Institute of International Affairs, believes that the EU must revitalise membership talks to reclaim its influence over Turkey.
“The Turkish government’s harsh reaction to expressions of domestic dissent, the EU’s criticisms thereof and the Turkish rebuff of the EU’s critique boil down to two conclusions: on the one hand, the enduring importance of the EU anchor for Turkey’s jump towards a mature and genuine democracy, and on the other the EU’s lost leverage on Turkey,” she told Al Jazeera.
According to Tocci, in addition to the talks planned for October, beginning discussions on Chapter 23 – relating to judiciary and fundamental rights – and Chapter 24 – justice, freedom and security – is vital, considering how relevant those areas are to current events.
Turkey’s EU bid remains in a uniquely precarious position.
Eight of the chapters blocked from discussion stem from a 2006 EU decision condemning Turkey for refusing to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot ships and planes. The Council also decreed in that sitting that no other chapter would be finalised until Turkey had fulfilled this commitment.
France and Cyprus (in 2007 and 2009 respectively) also froze a number of chapters. France later withdrew its block on discussing Chapter 22, which concerns Turkey’s regional policy. To this date, only 13 chapters have been opened, and only one of them is provisionally complete.
Cengiz Aktar, an associate professor at Turkey’s Bahcesehir University and an expert on EU studies, told Al Jazeera that the freeze on membership talks had been beginning to thaw in the past year. The EU’s decision to resume talks followed a number of positive developments, which took a subsequent blow over the Gezi Park protests, said Aktar.
“An unprecedented cooperation system called ‘Positive Agenda’ was launched around a year ago to cover the preparatory work on chapters and therefore speed up the process,” Aktar said. “On top of that, the Council authorised the European Commission to negotiate easier visa terms with Turkey – and [French President Francais] Hollande’s government withdrew its veto on Chapter 22.”
The Positive Agenda programme was launched by Turkey and the EU on May 8, 2012, with the aim “to keep the accession process of Turkey alive and put it properly back on track after a period of stagnation”. In this framework, joint working groups were founded on eight chapters, including Chapter 22.
Change in course of relations
In the early and mid-2000s, Turkey and the EU enjoyed warm relations, crowned by the opening of accession talks in 2005. Ankara passed several EU harmonisation packages which began to align its legislation with the other states in the bloc. The European Commission’s progress reports, decisions of EU institutions on Turkey and messages of European politicians on Ankara’s membership prospects became headline news.
There is a recent positive vibe within the EU regarding Turkey's membership; to what degree Turkey is able to utilise this is the main question of the next four months.
Pursuing a degree in EU studies was hip in Turkey when membership to the highly popular international organisation topped Turkey’s political agenda. Non-governmental organisations, think-tanks and universities were keen on conducting political, social and economic research on Turkey’s prospects in the bloc.
Yet today, Turkey, a country that has emerged as a political and economic power in the region, has deeper economic and political relations with its eastern and southern neighbours, and has more distanced relations with the EU.
According to Eurobarometer public opinion surveys conducted by the European Commission, public support among Turkish citizens for EU membership was 71 percent in 2004, highest among the candidate countries of the time. That figure dropped to 49 percent in 2008, 42 percent in 2010 and 36 percent in 2012.
Whether the growing apathy towards the EU stems from the negative attitudes of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Merkel, a change in Turkish government’s policy towards the EU or Turkey’s rising regional power, shifts among various dynamics have led to stagnation in Turkey’s EU bid.
Aktar stressed the need for renewed dynamism in the talks, and the need for the EU to set a viable EU entry date “such as 2023” for Turkey.
“October is a key month for Turkey’s membership bid,” he commented.
“There is a recent positive vibe within the EU regarding Turkey’s membership; to what degree Turkey is able to utilise this is the main question of the next four months.”
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras