The essence of the EU anchor for Turkish democracy
It was Mesut Yılmaz, the prime minister of the day, who declared that Turkey had suspended all political relations with the European Union back in 1997, following the Luxembourg summit in December 1997. Then, the EU Commission declared the Republic of Cyprus eligible to carry out membership negotiations representing the divided Turks in the north and excluding Turkey. Relations began again at the Helsinki summit in December 1999, after Greece lifted its veto; earlier that year Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was caught in Mogadishu airport after he was forced to leave the Greek embassy there, where he had been hiding, with a joint American-Turkish intelligence operation.
After its eligibility was announced for membership candidacy, Turkey’s relations with the EU started to improve. The first democratization steps for harmonization with the EU legislation had started to be taken under the three-party Bülent Ecevit coalition, such as the de-militarization of the state security courts and - more importantly - the lifting of the death penalty. That was particularly important because Öcalan had been sentenced to death according to the Turkish laws at the time.
The elections in 2002 carried only two parties to the Turkish Parliament: those which people considered as having no responsibility for the 2000-2001 economic crisis. The newly founded Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) took power and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) went into opposition. Both had promised to take steps toward Turkey’s EU membership, promises they kept for the first few years.
With the support given by Deniz Baykal, then leader of CHP, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan managed to pass nine constitutional amendment packages and to rewrite penal and civil codes from 2003-2004. That included a major correction in foreign policy on the problem of Cyprus. Ankara shifted its paradigm to "Don’t be the one to say no first" policy regarding the Greeks. A U.N.-referendum was carried out on both Turkish and Greek sides of the island for a reunification in April 2004, which was approved by the Turks but rejected by the Greeks. And when the EU granted membership for the Greek Cypriot government as representing the Turks as well, relations between Ankara and Brussels received major damage. The confidence between them deteriorated even further when the Greek Cypriot and French governments locked certain chapters of negotiations; until then negotiations were held in one package and the new method was brought in particularly for Turkey.
Nowadays, on top of the Cyprus issue, the Taksim wave of protests has increased the gap between Ankara and Brussels. When reactions started from both Brussels and individual capitals of the EU regarding excessive use of force by the Turkish police against those trying to use their rights to assemble and express themselves, Erdoğan’s government reacted back. If Brussels refuses to open another chapter which had been planned for next week, Ankara might suspend political links with the EU.
However, neither Turkey nor the EU, nor the relations between them, are the same as in 1997. Turkey is involved in a number of regional peace and stability topics as a partner of the EU; there are even more millions from Turkey living in European cities, most of them having voting rights now. The EU anchor, on the other hand, is important for Turkish democracy. It is true that young people who are now in their early 20s have no concept that the police might open indiscriminate fire on them, or that they could be tortured to death in a police station, and this is thanks to EU harmonization laws. Still, there are serious human rights abuses now, and Turkey should overcome those for sure. This is why some Turks are standing up to defend their rights. However, any attempt to push Turkey out of the EU system would have adverse consequences for both the EU and Turkey.