Brussels 15 years ago and 15 years later
It was the beginning of 2003; Abdullah Gül was Turkey’s Prime Minister. Fadıl Akgündüz, also known as Jet Fadıl, was an independent deputy from the southeastern province of Siirt. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was not yet elected as a deputy because of previous political bans. But as the leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) he went on a tour around EU countries. The only item on the agenda was a solid demand of full membership. There was a lot of enthusiasm.
Erdoğan and his team were saying: “reform, democratization and leaps;” they were pledging for the removal of all kinds of “tutelages, corruption and bans.”
European leaders fully trusted Erdoğan and the team who were believed to make Turkey more democratic. As a diplomacy reporter, who has closely monitored Turkey-EU relations between 1997 and 2002 and as someone who has covered that critical trip to the EU countries, I was, for the first time, witnessing such a positive atmosphere in Brussels.
The U.S. administration was also working wholeheartedly for Turkey’s EU accession. The presence of people like the current EU Minister Ömer Çelik around Erdoğan was increasing hopes.
The AK Party government, in the year following the trip, took steps surprising Europe on matters such as meeting the Copenhagen criteria, the Maastricht economic criteria and the resolution of the Cyprus issue.
Except for the constructive stance in Cyprus, none of these positive steps went unnoticed; and in the 2004 EU summit, Turkey’s accession talks were decided to start. In 2005, talks officially started.
Almost 15 years have passed and Erdoğan was once again in Brussels. This time he is both the president and the leader of the AK Party. He is much stronger.
But this time the trip started with Erdoğan’s challenge: “Brussels wants Turkey to withdraw, but we are saying if there is such a thing, then they should decide.” On the other hand, the trip coincided with serious diplomatic crises that Ankara has with Berlin, Vienna and The Hague.
Washington, which provided a strong lobby support 15 years ago in Brussels, this time, was experiencing problems with Ankara for arming the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and a brawl that erupted outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in the U.S. capital.
Matters such as freedom of thought, expression and press, as well as fundamental human rights and freedoms, over which Turkey was considered to have reached European standards back in 2004, are now again brought up to the agenda by the Europeans. European leaders want to challenge the issue, but security and the migrant crisis have prevented them from doing so. Turkey is desired to have a reform and leap period as it did in 2003 and 2004. Europeans expect “practices” not pledges.
However, they have not received any democratization and reform signals from Ankara in the current state of emergency environment, at a time when the fight against terror has intensified, when mechanisms for legal remedies are not functioning.
The top management of the AK Party, which should be working on a road map on reforms and democratization, is engaged in a new central executive committee (MYK) and a possible government reshuffle. There are cabinet ministers who are canceling their programs to make sure they are in town when the reshuffle happens. There are ministers who are focusing on projects that may ensure it keeps them in the cabinet.
Even I, despite trying to distance myself from political journalism for a while, am receiving plenty of new cabinet lists on who will stay, who will go and who will arrive.
I’m not even going into the excitement of changes in the top bureaucracy.