Eyes are on Turkey’s new EU minister

Eyes are on Turkey’s new EU minister

One does not see many tears being shed by European diplomats in Ankara over the dismissal of Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s former Minister for European Union Affairs and Chief Negotiator in Ankara’s membership talks with the Union. This comes as no surprise of course. Bağış has a shown he has a unique ability to make himself disliked.

It is hard to find a single EU diplomat who feels he made a significant contribution to Turkey’s membership bid. Bağış’s general approach suggested instead, he saw relations with the EU more as a competition in which it was his duty to outsmart European politicians who criticized Turkey for its shortcomings.

He was, in short, an apologist for these shortcomings, rather than a cheerleader for the EU’s democratic standards, which Ankara has to fulfill if it wants to be a member.

In doing so, he often used facile street-level humor, putting himself in the position of the pot calling the kettle black.

While it is clear that Europe has more than enough shortcomings of its own which merit criticism, and which are criticized in Europe day and night, it was never up to Bağış to maintain this tit-for-tat line, since it is Turkey that is trying to join the EU, and not the other way around.

Neither has the Erdoğan government given any indication to date that it is prepared to give up on its membership bid, despite the less than enthusiastic manner with which it has been pursuing the reforms that have to be enacted for this bid to have any chance of success in the long run.

For all the reluctance over Turkey’s membership, Europe has not been prepared to stop the negotiations either, which shows that both sides continue to see some logic in maintaining the negotiations even if these have been moving at snail’s pace.

As minister in charge of advancing ties with the EU, Bağış should have taken his cue from President Abdullah Gül, who is aware of the difficulties being strewn by Europe on Turkey’s membership path, but who has nevertheless been a strong supporter of Ankara’s EU perspective.

Gül’s positive line has been that whatever we do on the EU path is good for Turkey, given the democratization and high standards it brings to ordinary citizens, even if there is no membership at the end of the line.

Bağış has been closer to Erdoğan in this respect, appearing to believe if there is resistance in the EU to Turkey’s membership, then there is no need to hurry in instituting the reforms required for this membership.

There is a pall over Bağış now as a result of media reports that say he has been under surveillance for allegedly receiving bribes from a shady Iranian businessman. Bağış says he is innocent, and one has to presume he is until proven otherwise; if the current corruption probe is allowed by the government to go through, of course.

Unlike the other three ministers implicated in this probe, Bağış refused to resign after his name was mentioned in connection with this scandal. He was fired by means of the last week’s cabinet reshuffle, which saw no less than ten new ministers enter the government. Despite the brave face Bağış is putting on, he must be concerned now about what the future holds for him.

His replacement is Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, a name known to European diplomats and politicians because of his term as president of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly. Çavuşoğlu is known as a soft spoken and diplomatic person when it comes to dealing with Europeans, rather than being sharp tongued and denigrating as Bağış was.

One wonders, however, if he started his new job on the right foot after he issued a defensive statement – his first act as minister - in response to criticism by the EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement, Stefan Füle, over the manner in which the government has been handling the current corruption probe. Members of the government are also angry with Füle for praising the court annulment of a controversial decree that would have made the prosecutors work almost impossible.

“I invite our European friends to avoid preconceived convictions and be more vigilant while commenting on developments about Turkey’s internal developments, which have political dimensions,” Çavuşoğlu said in his statement Dec. 28. “Nobody should have any doubt that Turkey will overcome this difficult process with the guidance of democracy and basic legal rights,” he added.

The problem for Çavuşoğlu is, however, the steps by the government after the corruption scandal broke have fueled these doubts at home and in Europe. Many are wondering now if Çavuşoğlu’s statement indicates that he too will be a mere apologist for Turkey’s shortcomings, rather than use his energy to try and bring the standards that Füle and others in Europe have been exhorting to Turkey.

At this stage all we can do is give him the benefit of the doubt and hope for the best.