EU law accepted again as separate discipline in Turkish universities

EU law accepted again as separate discipline in Turkish universities

Nowadays, something rarely positive happens in Turkish-EU relations. That’s why, when news broke last Friday, a wave of joy spread in the WhatsApp group of the Turkey branch of Women in Foreign Policy (WFP) initiative.

Professor Sanem Baykal, who has dedicated three decades to EU law in the Ankara University Faculty of Law, announced that her decade-long fight together with her colleagues on behalf of EU law has achieved a positive outcome.

In an interview with Gülçin Karabağ from Mediascope on June 20, Baykal informed that Turkey’s Council of Higher Education (YÖK) had recently eliminated administrative hurdles to open the way for scholars to build their academic career on EU law.

To understand the significance of this decision, we first need to understand the peculiarity of EU law, for it is neither a national law nor international law. By sharing part of their sovereign jurisdictions, EU member countries have created a different and separate “legal space,” affecting not only 
EU countries but also non-member countries. That’s why it is studied even in countries like China, let alone in candidate countries. 

The trajectory of EU law in Turkish universities reflects the ups and downs of the country’s relationship with the bloc.

Turkish universities officially began integrating research issues pertaining to the European Union into their structures especially after 1987, when the country officially applied for membership. By the mid-1990s, members of academia could build their career on EU law, since EU law was recognized as a distinct academic legal discipline.

After the acceptance of Turkey as a candidate in 1999 and the start of accession negotiations, knowledge of EU law became more important.

In 2003, the Ankara University Faculty of Law and a university in İzmir decided to establish EU law as a separate academic branch. This came as a “bottom-up” approach: the proposal of the academic staff was first debated in the universities’ executive boards and then taken to YÖK, which accepted the request.

This decision came a year after the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) was first elected to government with the promise of making all the necessary reforms to accelerate Turkey’s accession. Indeed, the following few years witnessed a golden age in terms of sweeping reforms to comply with EU standards.

But this golden age come to an end by the second half of the 2000s, when membership aspirations ran up against the Merkel-Sarkozy duo. The leaders of Germany and France did not think the EU would benefit from Turkish membership. By then, Turkey’s leaders had also started to question the value of additional reforms.

The AK Party consolidated its power by increasing its votes. Turkey was seeing record levels of economic growth, but for Turkey’s new ruling elites, this did not have to do with democratic reforms. When the army was challenged by what was to be later found out to be sham trials in 2008, no one from Europe raised an objection on the legalities of the cases. 

Against this backdrop, the academic world learned in 2009 that it would no longer be possible to continue a separate academic career in EU law. Upon objections, YÖK reversed that decision a year later, but even during the course of that one year, many academics changed course.

In 2015, YÖK again introduced a hurdle which would bar the way of those working on EU law, denying them the necessary “academic title” that would enable them to advance their career specifically in EU law in law schools. After all, why would you do a doctorate on EU law, knowing that you may not be able to pursue your academic career specifically in EU law? 

It took five years for academia, together with the EU bureaucracy in Turkey – namely the Foreign Ministry – to reverse that decision.

Two points are striking: The first is the top-to-bottom approach that has been endorsed by YÖK. It takes decisions without consulting the relevant parties. The second is the ignorance on the importance of EU law.

Let’s put aside its importance in terms of democracy, rule of law, etc. These might no longer interest some in Turkey. But even looking from the practical point of view, it should have been clear to decision-makers that if the European Union remains the country’s largest trade partner, you need to excel in your knowledge of EU law. For some time, Turkey has been asking to modernize the customs union with the EU.

This request has not yet been accepted by the European side. But if it were, negotiations would not be conducted by leaders but by experts, unlike in relations with the United States and Russia.

YÖK’s decision came last March. But the damage was already done, as few were left willing to focus on EU law. Still, it’s better late than never. And let’s not forget that there will always be some people, even if just a handful, to work for Turkish-EU relations.

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