BACKGROUND: In January 2009, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan appointed State Minister Egemen Bağış as Turkey’s new chief negotiator in its accession talks with the EU. The appointment raised hopes that, after years of passivity and prevarication, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) would rediscover the zeal for the EU accession process. Indeed, through February and early March, Bağış raised expectations by proudly promising that the AKP would announce a new package of EU-inspired reforms at the beginning of April 2009. By late August, the reform package had yet to materialize. Nor was there any sign that the AKP was planning to rush one through parliament when it reconvened at the beginning of October.
The EU obviously welcomes the AKP’s recent “Kurdish Opening”. But the list of the AKP’s achievements in terms of fulfilling the criteria for EU accession looks perilously short when set against the many things that are still waiting to be done; not least Turkey’s continued refusal to honor its 2005 commitment to opening its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot ships and planes. Perhaps more tellingly even, the AKP’s “Kurdish Opening” appears to be a product of a combination of a sincere desire to put an end to the violence which has plagued Turkey for the last twenty-five years and a more self-interested attempt to boost the party’s electoral support in the predominantly Kurdish southeast.
After it first came to power in November 2002, the AKP vigorously implemented a series of liberalizing political reforms in an attempt to secure a date for the official opening of EU accession negotiations. Although it was continuing a process which had been initiated by its predecessors, the pace and breadth of the reforms introduced by the AKP were unprecedented.
However, even the most outspoken proponents of accession in Turkey often appeared remarkably unaware of the realities of EU membership, particularly the sacrifices and responsibilities that came with the benefits – not least the de facto transfer of a measure of national sovereignty to Brussels.
The first wake-up call came in early 2005 when the EU declared that it could not start accession negotiations unless Turkey extended its Customs Union agreement to include the Republic of Cyprus. In practice, this meant not only allowing Greek Cypriot goods into Turkey but opening the country’s ports and airports to ships and planes from Cyprus. In July 2005, in return for a promise that accession negotiations would begin in October 2005, Turkey signed what has become known as the Ankara Protocol, under which it pledged to open its ports and airports to ships and planes from Cyprus. Although accession negotiations were inaugurated in October 2005, the Ankara Protocol has never been implemented.
In retrospect, the impasse over Cyprus in 2005 appears to mark a critical shift in Turkey’s relations with the EU, which has been exacerbated by the increase in opposition to Turkish accession in key EU states such as France and Germany – but also the requirements of the accession process itself, which are inevitably considerably more onerous and intrusive than the criteria for initiating negotiations.
To date, Turkey and the EU have opened 13 of the 35 “chapters” of the accession negotiations. Only one has been concluded. At its summit meeting in December 2006, the EU voted to suspend discussions on eight chapters until Turkish honored the Ankara Protocol. It also announced that no other chapters would be officially closed until the Ankara Protocol was implemented. Turkey’s progress in honoring the Ankara Protocol is due to be reviewed at the next EU summit in Brussels on December 10-11, 2009.
IMPLICATIONS: Privately, AKP officials maintain that any attempt to implement the Ankara Protocol without having anything to show in return (such as the easing of the international embargo on the Turkish Cypriot administered north of Cyprus) would trigger a massive domestic political backlash and could split the government. They are probably right, although the same was said when the AKP signed the Ankara Protocol in July 2005. Neither does there appear to be any prospect of an imminent solution to the Cyprus problem. Although the two sides resumed negotiations in September 2008, they currently remain as far apart as ever on all of the most contentious issues.
Instead of accelerating, the EU-inspired domestic reform process has almost come to a halt since the beginning of accession negotiations in October 2005. In its last progress report of November 2008, the European Commission detailed a long list of reforms that needed to be implemented as a matter of urgency. These included measures to: reform the constitution, further reduce the political influence of the military, ensure the independence of the judiciary, tackle widespread corruption and increase transparency, prevent torture and other human rights abuses, lift restrictions on freedom of expression and belief, and safeguard the rights of women, children, trade unions and ethnic minorities.
Over the last twelve months, the AKP has made virtually no attempt to address any of the concerns listed in the Progress Report. One of the few exceptions was in the early hours of June 26, 2009, when the government abruptly pushed a law through parliament which made serving military personnel liable for trial in civilian rather than solely military courts. AKP officials described the new law as a requirement of Turkey’s accession process, although it is probably not a coincidence that the amendments reduced the de facto autonomy of an institution which the AKP has always regarded as its most formidable political opponent.
Recent opinion polls suggest that less than half the Turkish population now support the country’s EU bid, and that even less believe that Turkey will ever be allowed to accede even if it fulfills all the conditions for membership. As a result, in terms of its domestic popularity, the AKP currently has little to gain from reinvigorating the EU reform process. Nevertheless, Turkish officials are aware that the country has to do something before December 2009, when the EU is due to review Turkey’s failure to honor the Ankara Protocol. Even if there is little enthusiasm for the accession process, few want to see it collapse completely; not least because of the impact that such a collapse would have on foreign investor confidence. An abrogation or suspension of the accession negotiations currently appears unlikely. However, Turkish officials are aware that, barring the implementation of the Ankara Protocol (which they regard as a political impossibility), the best that Turkey can hope for is for the suspension of the eight chapters to be extended; and that there is a strong possibility that the EU may decide to freeze more chapters or impose other sanctions.
It is possible that in order to avoid further sanctions in December 2009, the AKP may decide to push through a package of liberalizing reforms when parliament returns from its recess in October. However, at the moment, it appears more likely to attempt to make concessions on a high profile issue which would not have far-reaching domestic political repercussions. The most obvious candidate is the Greek Orthodox seminary on Heybeliada. Although nothing has yet been finalized, privately Turkish officials describe the reopening of the seminary as having a potential symbolic importance out of all proportion to its domestic political cost.
CONCLUSIONS: During the AKP’s first term in power, all of its democratizing reforms – including the easing of restrictions on the expression of Kurdish identity – were implemented within the context of compliance with the requirements for the opening of accession negotiations with the EU. In the last twelve months, the AKP has launched two more major initiatives. In December 2008, it introduced an entirely Kurdish language channel on state-owned television. In June 2009, it began its “Kurdish Opening”. The first initiative was designed to boost the AKP’s popularity in the run-up to the local elections of March 2009. Even though there is no reason to question the sincerity of the AKP’s commitment to ending the violence in southeastern Turkey, it would not have launched its “Kurdish Opening” if it did not believe that it would also increase its popularity in the run-up to the general election in 2011.
From one perspective, the fact that the AKP can calculate that two such initiatives will lead to an overall increase in its vote is a remarkable testament to the transformation that has taken place in Turkey in recent years; something which, even if it was triggered by the EU accession process, has been nurtured by the AKP.
However, this decoupling of the accession process from the domestic reform process is also an indication of how attitudes to the EU have changed. It is nearly five years since the AKP passed a substantive package of reforms to comply with EU norms. The few reforms demanded by the EU that have been passed in recent years appear to be more the product of a convergence with the AKP’s perceptions of its own interests than a response to the requirements of the accession process. Perhaps the most telling sign of how things have changed is that, starting from September, as Turkish officials try to come up with a formula to avoid a “train crash” in December 2009, their main concern is no longer to move the accession process forward; it is simply to keep it alive.