Neither EU nor Turkish PM wants rupture in relations, expert says

Neither EU nor Turkish PM wants rupture in relations, expert says

ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
Neither EU nor Turkish PM wants rupture in relations, expert says

Turkey and the EU never needed each other so badly in the last 20 years as they do now, says Emre Gönen from İstanbul Bilgi University. There is a natural complementarity between Turkey and the EU, says Gönen. Hürriyet photos, Levent KULU

The Turkish government’s efforts to increase control over the judiciary has raised eyebrows in the European Union, ahead of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Brussels.

Neither the EU nor Turkey want a rupture in relations, said Emre Gönen, a political scientist specializing in EU affairs. “Turkey and the EU have never needed each other so badly in the last 20 years as they do now,” said Gönen.

What are we to expect from the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Brussels?

What we mainly expect is that there will be no unexpected, bad surprises. There has been a tangible revival of the relationship for the past six to eight months. It has ignited the very ailing dynamic between Turkey and the EU at the level of official negotiations.

You are talking about opening talks on one chapter and the agreements about visa requirements for Turks and the readmission of illegal immigrants back to Turkey.

Exactly. There are also two chapters that could easily be put into the pipeline. These are the chapters related to the independence of the judiciary mainly and the implementation of the judicial framework within a democratic system. The EU does not have a one-size-fits-all kind of administrative and judicial structure, but of course you have the institutional independence and the whole nebula of things that make the separation of powers acceptable at a level of a democratic country.

At the moment, we do not know what is going to happen in Turkey. I am confident the PM does not know himself how a deal will be produced among the different groups represented in the Parliament. So it might have an adverse effect concerning the future of relations with the EU. We can hardly speak in Turkey about a very strong tradition of independence for the judiciary vis-à-vis the executive. Since the very inception of the Turkish republic, we have had a very long tradition of a weak judiciary vis-à-vis the governing power, and there’s also a very bad dimension that has totally crippled the Turkish judicial system, the presence and persistence of the exceptional tribunals – as if every time we are in a crisis situation there is a “need” to establish an exceptional tribunal system which hinders the functioning and development of an acceptable judicial system.

Having for decades postponed those kinds of reforms, Turkey is in dire need to really explain itself to the EU about how to effect an acceptable democratic separation of power and independence of judiciary. Any government should be very meticulous in reforming the system, but in the present situation, I don’t think the government has all the latitude to be very meticulous and foster a large understanding among the different actors in the country. There is a distortion between the immediate needs of the government and also the situation of the judiciary – how to implement judicial independence that lives up to its name. Plus, there is this ongoing battle between an elected government and something else; nobody really knows this something else. There is a force definitely that can be extremely detrimental to the politics of the government; you cannot define either the structure behind it or its objectives. This requires the deep normalization of Turkish political life. So I think it will be very difficult for the prime minister to make it clear to his counterparts in Brussels, especially with the president of the European Parliament. Discussions may take a different course; I am a little bit cautious about the outcome.

But the difficulty of the situation not only likely stems from the recent developments. Don’t you think the very positive image Erdoğan has enjoyed previously in the EU has been changing?

Until 2007, the PM had been instrumental in establishing serious reforms. The EU has been amazed by the performance of the premier and his party. But the PM has been disappointed by the EU. Our PM is a political animal with a very good take on politics, but he also speaks and acts with his perceptions and hunches, rather than in a calm and very cool-headed way. It has also influenced him very adversely with the EU. To his advantage, I must also confess that just about anyone but Tayyip Erdoğan would have left the negotiation table long ago; he has stayed there despite all the odds. This will be the visit in which he might reap the fruit of his stubbornness in not leaving the table. This visit will be perhaps the reciprocation on the EU part for the motivation for Turkey at staying at the table.

But the EU has been sending warning messages about recent developments ahead of the visit.

The message sent recently is that what is at stake could be the suspension of negotiations.

On the one side, you are saying this visit will provide an opportunity for the EU to improve relations but on the other hand, you admit that recent developments have created a situation that could open the door for the suspension of accession talks? Isn’t that contradictory?

Yes, it is a contradictory and conflicted situation, but I am optimistic in the sense that the EU, despite having sent the message that the evolution of the Turkish situation could lead to a suspension of talks, will not want to implement such a drastic measure – but the EU will ask for something in return. Perhaps the kind of reform in the judiciary which will get the EU’s blessing; not officially, but a kind of understanding as to what the reform of the judiciary will consist of and to what extent the EU can accept it with a clear conscience.

So you argue that the EU does not want a rupture in accession talks.

No it does not. Turkey and the EU never needed each other so badly in the last 20 years [as they do now]; this is also blatantly evident. Our external policy, especially in the Middle East, has not been crowned with success, and we have come to the understanding that our influence mainly stems from Turkish soft power, which is mainly due to our association with the EU. For our region, Turkey looks like Euro Disney; seen from northern Iraq or northern Syria, Turkey is the entrance door to the European single market. And the EU is at odds with its public spending, domestically speaking. Economic growth is absent, the recovery from the euro crisis is coming only very slowly, and the EU does not have a handy instrument to intervene in the quagmire of the Middle East; the only instrument existing is Turkey. So there is a natural complementarity between Turkey and the EU.

So does that mean that although there has been a change in the image of Erdoğan, the EU will ignore that and turn a blind eye to what many see as democratic backpedaling in Turkey?

There is a change due to the fact that the texture of the Turkish media has been so corrupt for decades that now with a strong government, there has been a total dislocation of ethics: either you are for the government or against the government. All the pressure put upon media outlets has become visible; this has become so visible that basically people in the EU have started to ask questions in regards to the independence of the press and freedom of speech. Freedom of speech has been severed many times in the past but it was never done in an institutional way. With a very strong and stable period of governance, the government has been depicted as a power that is trying to tame the mass media.
This has also played a very important role in [showing the PM in a bad light].

He is not a personality who eagerly accepts criticism. He is vocal and he says what he thinks. On the other hand, that’s one of my strongest hopes: He also has this peculiar capacity to change the course of his policy. Going to Brussels, he will have in his bag some interesting openings toward the EU; without it, we won’t be able to get many things from the EU.

You think he wants to make the most about his visit to Brussels. But if faced with some criticism, slamming the door on the EU could gain him popularity. What makes you opt for the first scenario?

The price to be paid for the second scenario. You are right in saying that slamming the door will give him extra popularity for three months. His real power stems from the fact that the Turkish economy has been almost continuously steady growing. The only election he lost some of the votes he won was the previous local elections, which was in 2009, the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis; it was the only year we have experienced negative growth. A rupture with the EU is too heavy a price to pay for Turkey.

You think he is aware of the contributions of the EU?

I have never seen any politician within the EU give credit to the EU for achievements in the economy. I believe that in the long run, the severing of relations has taught both of us the limitation for our margins to maneuver; the EU cannot disregard Turkey. There is a general understanding on both sides that this is not sustainable. I believe that even with the existing quagmire, there are enough people with vision. But of course one should not be dreaming of a rapid resumption.

Who is Emre Gönen ?


Emre Gönen is a Turkish political scientist specializing in EU affairs. Since 2000, he has been teaching at Istanbul Bilgi University. He has served as the Director of a European Studies Master’s Program for 12 years. Since 2011, he has been serving as the Advisor to the Rector for external relations. He teaches European governance, Political and Diplomatic history. He is the author of five books on different aspects of the EU-Turkey relationship.

After working in the Turkish private sector between 1985 and 1989, Gönen was with the Economic Development Foundation (IKV) until 2000 and held the position of Secretary General for seven years. He has been strategic advisor to the CPS Board since September 2002. Gönen holds a master’s degree from Université des Sciences Humaines de Strasbourg, France and a post-graduate certificate from Université Libre de Bruxelles, Institut d’Etudes Européennes,