Time for EU’s self-criticism in Turkey policies

Time for EU’s self-criticism in Turkey policies

May 9 was Europe day. It has been 64 years since the declaration of the Schuman doctrine dated May 9, 1950, which laid the foundations of the European Union.

On the occasion of Europe Day, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a message saying, “Full membership in the EU is a strategic preference of Turkey,” reiterating the government's “commitment to the target of membership.” In this message, Erdoğan also emphasized “determined work toward meeting EU norms and standards and also full harmonization with political and economic criteria.”

In this message, the prime minister emerges with an identity embracing the “European Project” and praising European values.

One of the most striking portions of the message was that Erdoğan stressed that Turkey “has been actually a part of the European legal system since 1949.” With these words, the prime minister was referring to the process starting with Turkey’s becoming a member of the Council of Europe in 1949 and coming all of the way to accepting its individual application to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

However, it constitutes a completely contrasting situation with regards to European norms and standards, the one that is on paper and in statements and what are actually in practice in Turkey.

It is quite adequate to just look at the bulk of the recent criticizing statements from Brussels, one after the other, to verify Turkey’s distancing itself from European values.

The fact that European Commission felt the need to publicly stress, particularly during the process after Dec. 17, “that any change to the judicial system must not call into question Turkey’s commitment as regards the Copenhagen political criteria” is to be taken seriously.

In other words, the commission implies that there are question marks as regards to Turkey’s compliance with the Copenhagen political criteria. The Copenhagen criteria are a pre-requisite for the launching of and continuation of membership talks.

It is now an opinion everybody agrees on within the EU that in Turkey, freedom of expression is experiencing major problems and in addition to that, after Dec. 17, 2013, the independence of the judiciary also took a major blow.

It would not be a mistake to say this: If the government had applied for accession talks today, the European Commission would probably not license Turkey to start negotiations in the light of its poor performance on democracy, fundamental rights and freedoms. The opinion that particularly because of the widespread problems in those fields as freedom of the press, the right to assembly and independence of the judiciary, it was not meeting Copenhagen criteria would dominate and that it would be asked of Turkey to complete its homework in these chapters first.

At this point, we need to answer this paradoxical question: How come the EU is experiencing a loss of ground in the field of democracy and rule of law in a country it has officially accepted as a candidate for full membership and with which it has launched accession talks to advance its democracy – as well as other targets? This is an issue that needs to be studied at the academic level by the EU departments in universities.

In any case, the conclusion we can draw is that the EU, within its engagement with Turkey, has not been able to provide an adequate protective shield for democracy and rule of law in this candidate country. The EU, with its present institutional conduct, has failed in this particular challenge.

The EU is going through a similar paradoxical situation in not even a candidate country, in a member country, in the example of Hungary.

Where does the EU’s weakness in this area stem from? The first reason is the EU has particularly been weak in understanding the drifts in Turkey in the period, particularly after 2008 and 2009, in analyzing Erdoğan’s management style and reading his political cunningness.

The negativities the EU is criticizing Turkey about today are not the outcomes of a sudden changing of the constellations of the stars in the sky. Even though the government’s authoritarian trends started way before 2011, the radars of the European Commission went through some blindness in spotting these signs. Providing space for one extra paragraph in progress reports did not bring any cure to these problems in practice. When the situation went beyond the critical threshold, the EU had already lost its margin to influence the developments.

No matter what, there is a situation that calls for a serious self-criticism in terms of the EU.

We can define this situation as the EU’s “deserved helplessness.”