BACKGROUND: Since the EU took the historic decision to start accession negotiations with Turkey in 2005, very little, if any progress has been made in the process, due to reasons stemming from the inabilities of both sides. Initially, the AKP accorded great importance to EU accession, but after 2005 the issue has been treated with at best benign neglect. However, it is true that the Erdogan government did display a very determined stance about the issue and it deserves credit for having been able to reach the goal of a negotiation start despite several internal and external obstacles.
No doubt the rejection of the EU constitution and the turmoil it created in the Union, coupled with developments in Turkish politics have contributed to the stalling of the Turkish accession process. It is generally assumed that the AKP government’s enthusiasm about the EU cooled after the 2005 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, which upheld the Turkish law banning the Islamic headscarf in universities. Indeed, that was a shock for the AKP leadership, which had assumed that the European Court would issue a ruling that the ban was a violation of human rights. In addition, the sensitive Cyprus issue, the tensions that erupted over Turkey’s presidential election in 2007 and the subsequent AKP closure case inevitably made it impossible for Turkey to focus on the EU process. Matters were further complicated by internal EU developments, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy making their opposition to Turkish membership well known.
Meanwhile, the Turkish government neglected to appoint a chief negotiator with the sole responsibility of looking into EU affairs. Being preoccupied with numerous other foreign policy issues, foreign minister and head negotiator Ali Babacan was predictably unable to concentrate on keeping the EU process on track. The recent appointment of Egemen Bagis, known to have a close relationship with the Prime Minister, as chief negotiator should be viewed as a positive development, as a sign that the Turkish government does accord the issue the importance it deserves.
IMPLICATIONS: Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit to Brussels and his meeting with the European Commission, following on the appointment of Bagis, represented an opportunity for the EU authorities and for the member countries to understand and evaluate Turkey’s current stance. During the Brussels visit, Erdogan emphasized his government’s seriousness about the EU accession process, while also using the opportunity to criticize the Europeans for their “double standards”. Erdogan underlined Turkey’s importance for European security, reminding his Brussels audience of Turkey’s centrality to the issue of EU’s energy security, specifically mentioning the Nabucco project.
New chief negotiator Bagis is not known to have been closely involved in the EU negotiations, despite the fact that he is the deputy chairman of AKP responsible for foreign relations. Still, his appointment will undoubtedly have several practical benefits. The forthcoming strengthening of the vague structure of the General Secretariat for EU Affairs (ABGS), which will keep Bagis busy in the short term, until the local elections in March, will definitely contribute to Turkey’s accession process.
The appointment of Bagis should not least be seen against the backdrop of the rivalry that appears to exist between President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both Gül and Erdogan aspire to have the last word on the execution of Turkey’s foreign policy. Foreign minister Babacan, the former chief negotiator, is known to be very close to President Gül. By appointing Egemen Bagis, who is known for his loyalty to Erdogan, the Prime Minister has signaled his clear intention to bring the accession process under his complete control. However, in order to gain full bureaucratic control over the accession process, the new chief negotiator will have to surmount the dominance exerted by the diplomats of the foreign ministry who are known for their tough stance in the negotiations.
The latest signals of the Turkish government, reaffirming its commitment to the EU accession process, should be viewed in light of the upcoming local elections. It is not politically rewarding to be perceived as being distanced towards the EU. The perception of the AKP as a supporter of the EU has been one of the AKP’s main electoral assets. Although it is true that popular support for the EU among the public has decreased from 75 to 45 percent, that decrease is mainly caused by the slow progress of the accession process and by what the Turkish public see as the double standards of the EU, and is not necessarily due to a change of heart regarding the desirability of EU membership.
Desiring a clear victory in the local elections, Erdogan wants to rebuild his image as being the sole owner of the EU process. The visit to Brussels as well as the step to appoint a new chief negotiator serves that purpose. Erdogan’s turn to electioneering is also clear from his harsh rhetoric against Israel. By giving excessive weight to Israel’s Gaza offensive during his meetings with EU officials and by walking out of a panel with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Davos World Economic Forum, Erdogan consolidates the Islamic conservative base ahead of the election.(See Turkey Analyst 16 January)
The support that the AKP received from the EU when the party was under threat of closure served to remind Erdogan that reviving the accession process will be to the party’s benefit. Meanwhile, the opposition CHP, being dragged into taking an anti-EU position untypical for the party as a result of AKP’s appropriation of the issue, has lately softened its rhetoric regarding the EU. The CHP has also underlined the importance it accords to the EU by opening an office in Brussels. However, no change in the rightist nationalist MHP’s firm stance against the EU seems to be under way.
The increasingly politicized Ergenekon investigation is bound to occupy the Turkish agenda for the foreseeable future. Whatever the case eventually results in, it has by now been transformed into a battlefield in which the secularist and anti-secularist elements are locked in a head-on fight. With the local elections approaching, it would be overly optimistic to expect the political tensions to cool. In a context which is defined by confrontation, the government will experience severe difficulties in creating an environment that could ease the way for the kind of compromises which the EU reform process necessitates. In the event that the AKP increases its share of the votes in the local elections, moreover, Erdogan could be tempted to revive an Islamic conservative agenda. That would certainly lead to a further increase in political tensions.
While at first glance the European Commission may seem dissatisfied by the slow progress of reforms in Turkey, the current stagnation does is in fact serve the interests of the Commission. Given the current atmosphere among the member states, the EU Commission would evidently prefer to face the issue of Turkey’s full membership problems as late as possible. As eight chapters have been tied to the issue of Greek Cypriot ports and as five further chapters were put on hold during the French presidency, the negotiations are for all intents and purposes destined to be in deadlock until June, when Sweden assumes the EU presidency.
CONCLUSIONS: Turkey’s EU bid is a process that is dependent on internal and external political developments. A possible political instability following the Turkish local elections will de facto freeze the issue, as has been the case during the past two years. There are no signs that the political tensions that accumulated during the AKP closure case and which have continued to build up further during the course of the Ergenekon investigation will decrease in the near future. Turkey’s inability to reach an internal consensus obviously weakens its hand in relation to the EU.
Although the EU has displayed little if any enthusiasm for Turkey, the Turks remain committed to the goal of EU accession. The recent moves of the governing AKP as well as the change in attitude of the opposition CHP towards Europe are new reminders that being perceived as a friend of EU accession remains an political asset. The pro-European readjustment under way in the CHP is important, as it makes it more difficult for the AKP to monopolize the European question. Europeans who would want to see progress being made in Turkey’s accession process should recognize the importance of encouraging that development.