Neither neighbor nor member: Bringing Turkish civil society into the fold
This year’s civil society forum of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries meeting in Poznan (Nov. 28-30) is a good time to ask if counterparts from Turkey should not be involved in the process.
The EaP’s Civil Society Forum brings together NGOs of the European Union’s six eastern neighbors, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, along with NGOs from EU member states. It is gradually developing a network of activists, journalists, and critical thinkers in the region that identify with each other and know each others’ concerns.
Turkey’s absence from a platform where experiences are shared and visions for the region are jointly shaped only exacerbates the problem of otherness between Turkish and European policy communities, and even causes disjoint between the EU-oriented Turkish intellectual elite (already a rare breed) with their progressive counterparts in the Black Sea neighborhood. The exclusion of Turkish NGOs is also out of synch with the oft-expressed motivation in the EU to capitalize on Turkey’s assets in the joint neighborhood.
In effect, Turkey is intertwined in all the EaP Civil Society Forum agenda items – as a neighbor, a strategic partner, an EU candidate, an economic hub, a geographical “place in between.” Turkey is part of the problem and part of the solution for almost all the questions the EU takes up with its EaP neighbors, from historical reconciliation to democratization, from border control to environmental protection, from strategic to demographic questions.
Integrating Turkish civil society into the Civil Society Forum as a stakeholder would allow Turkish counterparts to learn with their neighbors, and to share their own insight. Turkish civil society contains a wide range of expertise in issues ranging from free trade regimes to legal reform for human rights that could be put to use. Particularly because much of this specialization was developed with EU-designed NGO-capacity-building and democratization in Turkey, it is a waste not to plug it into regions the EU is now attempting to integrate with similar instruments.
For some EaP countries, the experiences of Turkish civil society are more relevant than that of EU member states, due to cultural or political similarities. While Turkey’s vibrant civil society has victories it can relate, it also has challenges to share – ranging from limitations on freedom of expression to scant opportunities for critical thought and action.
Finally, it simply does not make structural sense that the EU, given its scarce human and financial resources, would not try to consolidate its civil society engagement with candidates and neighbors with any method possible. A weakness of institutional memory and flexibility seems to prevent the potentially valuable transfer of know-how and networks from one EU office or mandate to another.
Because of the unfortunate stalemate in Turkey’s EU accession process, frustration among Turks is running high. Yet it is in the interests of Turkey, the EU and the EaP countries that Turkey and the EU do not drift apart and that Turkey’s growing engagement in the region takes place in connection with the European integration process. Turkey-EU relations need as much positive momentum as possible. To the extent that there is any common thinking and identity being forged at the level of democratic civil society in Europe, including progressive Turkish individuals and institutions can only help, and creating a sense of exclusion can only harm. Creatively integrating Turkish civil society into the Civil Society Forum is one simple way to serve this end.
Diba Nigar Göksel is editor-in-chief of Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ), a member of ESI, and a specialist on the Black Sea region.