After a deep freeze in the negotiations over Turkey’s accession to the EU, which began back in 2005, the first signs of progress have appeared. However, the Turks seem tired from years of waiting and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is more and more often talking about Turkey joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization instead of the EU. But the Turkish people have, in turn, begun openly showing their dissatisfaction with the Prime Minister, who has not only failed to fulfill his promises and bring Turkey into the EU, but has gotten carried away with a policy of “tightening the screws.”
Negotiations over Turkey’s accession to the EU have been ongoing for eight years and were almost completely suspended in the second half of 2012 due to Turkish authorities’ refusing to negotiate with Cyprus, which they still have not recognized as a sovereign state. Failure to recognize the sovereignty of Cyprus along with the fact that Ankara recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is a current EU member, is one of the main problems preventing Turkey’s integration with Europe. But there was some progress when Nicos Anastasiades was elected President of Cyprus in February 2013. In 2004, Anastasiades expressed support for the UN plan to reunify the island, a plan that was adopted by the Turkish Cypriots, but was rejected by their Greek neighbors. Unless the President has changed his views, it is possible that one of the issues preventing Turkey from acceding to the EU (like, for example, Turkey refusing to open its ports to Greek Cypriot vessels), would be removed from the agenda.
Ireland was passed the baton in 2013, assuming the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, which experts believe will give hope to a new round of negotiations. Based on a recent statement from European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fule, it’s safe to assume that within greater Europe, discussions are ongoing about the possibility of a new member. Mr. Fule stated that in the event of accession to the European Union, Turkey will have to adopt the euro as its national currency. According to him, this will be one of the conditions for Turkey to join the EU in the financial and currency policies part of the negotiations. However, is this not just another way to slow down the negotiations? Because it is obvious that Turkey’s economy is booming and its lira is strong, so it most likely won’t want to adopt the euro, given that countries in the Eurozone are in a deep financial crisis. This condition seems particularly strange, since of the 27 EU countries, only 17 today use the euro as a national currency.
The Road to Europe Is Long
In order to qualify for membership in the EU, candidate countries must meet certain provisions laid out in the Copenhagen criteria, which were developed in 1993. These criteria require that candidate countries be geographically located in Europe and be in line with the political, economic, and legislative requirements of the EU. As for geography, only 3% of Turkish territory is west of Istanbul and in Europe, but the fact that accession negotiations were begun proves that the EU doesn’t have any complaints about this issue. In addition, this geographical precedent was already created with the adoption of Cyprus into the EU. As for the compatibility of national legislation with EU norms, Turkey has shown that it is quite serious about the EU’s recommendations, banning the death penalty in 2004, for example.
During the ten-year leadership of Prime Minister Erdogan and the moderate conservative Justice and Development Party, the Turkish economy has achieved outstanding results, becoming 17th in the world. The EU’s previous “excuses,” that Turkey does not meet the economic standards of the EU, don’t hold up. There has been progress in terms of political freedom: A referendum adopted in 2010 amended the constitution to limit the influence of the military in political and social life and somewhat expanded the rights of ethnic minorities. But Erdogan’s critics complain about the state of democracy in the country, pointing out how the opposition is extremely weak while the ruling party’s influence, on the contrary, is quite strong. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey became the leading nation in 2012 for the most imprisoned journalists. Most of the 49 reporters behind bars have been accused of anti-government conspiracy. Ankara claims that these numbers are overestimated. But Freedom House has assessed similar results, ranking freedom of speech in the Turkish media and internet as only “partly free.” That means Turkey’s key discrepancies with the Copenhagen criteria are in the political sphere, and European authorities confirm this. In an interview with WEJ, Deputy Head of Press and Information for the European Union in Russia, Denis Danilidis, noted that “Turkey has serious democracy issues, confirmed by the fact that they have arrested the most journalists in the world. There are other issues, of course, like the situation with Cyprus.”
Turkish discontent with Erdogan eventually boiled over and since May 31 there have been daily protests that are become fiercer with each passing day. These events aren’t just hurting Turkey’s reputation as a stable country, but are also seriously affecting its economy. By the fourth day of protests, Turkey’s stock index had fallen 10.47%, while its currency, the lira, fell against the dollar by 0.7%. The formal reason for the first protests was discontent with government plans to tear down Gezi Park in Istanbul and replace it with yet another shopping mall. Yet the nature and duration of the protests suggest the real causes of discontent run much deeper. Demonstrations were especially large in Turkey’s two biggest cities, Istanbul and Ankara, where protestors have resorted to such “democratic” ways of defending their rights as stoning law enforcement officials. More than 3,000 people have been arrested during the riots and several have been killed. An angry mob destroyed more than 100 cars as well as a large number of bus stops and other facilities located on both municipal and private property. These developments serve only to further call into question the validity of Turkish claims to EU membership. After all, the nature of these demonstrations and the mood of the crowd are increasingly reminiscent of the Arab Spring. Europe hardly needs such a troubled neighbor.
Another stumbling block is the issue of Armenia. Most of the world classifies the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 extermination of the Armenian population as genocide, but official Ankara doesn’t recognize the crimes of their ancestors. While an official recognition of the genocide is not a prerequisite for Turkey to join the EU, experts say that the unresolved issues with Armenia could prevent it. Ankara is well aware of this and is trying to resolve bilateral relations. Back in 2005, Turkish authorities suggested to Armenia that they establish a joint commission of historians to study the events of 1915, stating also that the Turkish archives from that time could be opened for study by the Armenians. The offer has yet to be accepted, but the attempt itself to normalize relations further is a clear indication of Turkey’s willingness to fulfill requirements imposed on it.
Mr. Danilidis told WEJ that “the steps taken by Turkey to normalize its relationship with Armenia have failed because of resistance from Azerbaijan, with which Turkey is in a strategic partnership. Azerbaijan has its own claims of genocide against Azerbaijanis by Armenians and the unwillingness of Armenia to settle the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. This is why Turkey hasn’t been able to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia, limiting itself to a statement from 2009 on the need for their establishment. But in general, Turkey has shown that it can take concrete steps in solving long-standing problems. Striking examples of this are the step-by-step measures towards a truce with the Kurdish Workers’ Party and the official recognition of rights for the minority Kurdish community.”
Turkey’s desire to integrate with Europe is obvious, but Germany and France, which set the tone in European politics, are less than enthusiastic. Although nowhere is anyone saying it directly, one possible reason for stopping the integration process is the reluctance of European leaders to accept an Islamic state into its ranks. If this is the case, negotiations will likely yield no results in the foreseeable future.
The EU Is No Longer in Style
At present, the European Union is going through difficult times because of the economic recession, rising unemployment in certain EU countries, and the financial collapse of Cyprus, all of which can’t but have an effect on its image. Trust in the EU has fallen even in the “core” European countries where the population has traditionally stood for a united Europe. Eurobarometer surveys show that 72% of Spaniards distrust the EU as do 69% of Britons, 59% of Germans, 56% of French, and 53% of Italians. The only country where more people were satisfied with the EU’s policies than not was Poland, though support for the EU here has fallen to 48%. Not surprisingly, the situation is similar in countries aspiring to join the EU – notably Turkey, which many think is the most underrated candidate for accession and demonstrates good economic figures without European integration. A recent study shows that Turkish popular support for accession into the EU has fallen from 70% in 2005 to 33%.
Danilidis explains the main reasons for the decrease in EU attractiveness and how to restore confidence: “The fact that Turkish support for joining the EU has decreased can be explained by the financial crisis that hit the Eurozone. In this, Turkey is not alone – similar trends are being observed in other countries bordering the EU and in candidate countries. The solution to this problem is in strengthening the position of the European Union’s institutions. This will provide citizens in the EU with new opportunities, which ultimately will have an impact on the attractiveness of the organization as a whole.”
Strengthening the EU, which is torn from within by the financial crisis, is not expected in the short term, so in the meantime, Turkey is looking for other alternatives. Along these lines, Prime Minister Erdogan mentioned in a recent speech the possibility of joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), in which Turkey already has dialogue partner status. In fact, this resulted in the signing of a memorandum of partnership in dialogue between the SCO and Turkey on April 27. Commenting on this event, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu? said that “Turkey and the SCO share the same fate.”
Turkey shares with the SCO not only an interest in Central Asia, where Turkey is busy developing business contacts, but also a multi-centric view of the world. Formal procedures for joining the SCO haven’t been fully developed and for now it isn’t clear how new members will be accepted and whether additional eligibility criteria will be required of them. In addition to Turkey, India and Pakistan also hope to join the SCO as full members and currently have observer status – more important than Turkey’s dialogue partner status. Both Pakistan and India are important strategic partners, like China and Russia, which is why Turkey most likely won’t be able to join ahead of them.
Denis Danilidis believes that Turkey’s desire to integrate into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization isn’t in conflict with its potential accession to the EU, especially since Turkey is already involved in several regional organizations.
Turkey has a huge domestic market of 80.5 million people, strong regional positions, a high human development index, and a well-developed economy. It is also a moderate Islamic country, which is very important in an age of growing fundamentalism. Turkey is the desirable prospective bride whom the EU is for some reason underestimating, increasingly offering the concept of “enhanced partnership” instead of full membership.
Text: Olga Irisova