Turkey’s new EU minister’s first task is damage control on corruption claims

Turkey’s new EU minister’s first task is damage control on corruption claims

Semantics are crucial in the functioning of the European Union. I learned this in one of the EU summits in the mid-1990s, which were a source of tension between Greece and Turkey at the time. On every occasion, the final statements in the summits were subject to intense negotiations between Greece and the friends of Turkey, trying to curb the strong wording that the Greeks wanted to use against Ankara. In one case, simply adding a comma to a sentence in English made such a change that it became acceptable to both the Greeks and the other side.

It was during EU summits that I learned what "constructive ambiguity" means. There have been countless times where I witnessed this "constructive ambiguity" at work during long hours of negotiations within the EU on Turkey. I can argue confidently that compared to other international organizations, you can't find better mediation anywhere else.

In that respect, I was quite surprised to hear Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk named as the new European Council president. As expected, some critics have pointed to Tusk’s halting English as a disadvantage when it comes to making deals among the bloc’s 28 heads of state and government. He also doesn’t speak French, the EU’s other main working language.

Do you remember how Turkey’s current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, during the election campaign, tried to criticize his rival Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu over the fact that the latter is a polyglot? “We are not electing a translator,” said Erdoğan, who does not speak a foreign language.

Indeed, the EU was not looking for a translator either. But the job Mr. Tusk was named for requires mediation skills, so communicating with the sides that you are trying to reconcile in a common language would have helped. The fact that he knows German and that as prime minister he forged good relations with Angela Merkel perhaps tells us who the real power pulling the strings in the EU is.

Looking from Turkey’s perspective, having a statesman at the helm of the EU from Poland, which favors enlargement and Turkey’s membership, is positive. So is having an Italian politician as the EU high representative for foreign affairs.

The European Commission has been Turkey’s most important ally within the European Union. Whenever the process has stalled for political reasons, the Commission has come to the rescue with creative ideas to prevent relations from falling into a coma. It could, therefore, come as bad news to have Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker (another German speaker), who is a known enlargement skeptic, to be heading the Commission. But let’s not forget that the commissioner for enlargement (who has still not been named yet) is more important as far as Turkey is concerned, and decisions are jointly made by all of the commissioners. In other words, Juncker won’t himself be able to block a pro-Turkey step with the backing of a majority of the commissioners.

Interestingly, the change in key positions within the EU has coincided with the change in the Turkish Cabinet. The naming of former EU Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu as foreign minister and replacing him with Volkan Bozkır should send some positive signals to Brussels, for both are two people familiar with European affairs. We can expect the rhetoric between the two sides to become more positive and there will be a smoother working relationship between Ankara and Brussels.

However, will this make much of a difference? I doubt it. Even if Ankara may succeed in convincing the EU to open one of the chapters that are no longer blocked by France, in view of the current mood on both sides we should not expect the accession process to gain momentum.

In the short term, Bozkır’s priority will be to curb possible criticism that might find its place in the upcoming progress report, due for Oct. 8. I am pretty sure he will spend a lot of energy ahead of that date for damage control regarding the sections dealing with accusations that the government has covered up corruption claims, as well as criticism regarding efforts to interfere with the judiciary.