Turkey’s EU perspective weaker than ever

Turkey’s EU perspective weaker than ever

In his Europe Day statement, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said his government remained committed to meeting the European Union’s political and economic criteria, and added that continuing Ankara’s membership talks in a “dynamic manner” was to the advantage of the EU and Turkey.

Speaking a few days after Erdoğan’s message, Hannes Swoboda, leader of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, told daily Hürriyet’s Cansu Çamlıbel in an interview (May 12) that Turkey was further away from EU membership today than it was seven years ago.

In tune with what many European critics of the Erdoğan government are saying, Swoboda voiced concerns over judicial independence in Turkey, suggesting openly that far from remaining committed to meeting the EU’s political and economic criteria, Ankara is regressing in this regard.

Going on to use strong language, Swoboda, who has been following Turkey very closely for a number of years now, characterized Erdoğan as “an autocrat,” saying “the language he uses is the typical language of an autocrat.”

Swoboda’s remarks are in tune with those of other European politicians, especially in Germany where calls are being made to suspend membership talks with Ankara. All of this is out of tune with the positive spin Erdoğan tried to give in his Europe Day message.

EU Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s remark, on the other hand, that Turkey is closer to EU membership today than it ever was, because of the steps taken by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government over the past 12 years, could be accepted as valid if taken in relative terms.

Membership talks with the EU started in 2005, when the AKP was in power, and relative to the situation prior to that, Turkey is closer to EU membership. Taken in absolute terms, however, Çavuşoğlu’s remarks appear to be no more than a joke in bad taste.

The truth of the matter is that prospects for Turkish membership look worse than ever today. For ties between Ankara and the EU to be re-energized with a view to achieving membership anytime soon, Turkey will have to roll back some of its recent reactionary steps in areas like press freedoms, freedom of assembly, and the independence of the judiciary.

Given the things the government is concentrating on these days to protect itself against corruption charges, such as working to have Erdoğan elected president in August, it is unlikely that this will happen anytime soon. One can therefore expect increased tensions between Turkey and the EU as remarks, such as those made by Swoboda in his Hürriyet interview, or German President Joachim Gauck during his recent visit to Ankara, continue to come from Europe.

Things will have to change on the EU side also, of course, for Turkey’s membership perspective to be re-energized and for the AKP to be encouraged to return to the reformist path, not just for the sake of Turkish-EU ties, but also for Turkey itself. Put simply, those in Europe who want Ankara to somehow remain “anchored in Europe” without EU membership will have to overcome their Turkish phobias too.
That also does not appear likely anytime soon. To the contrary, political developments in Turkey today are being used by some in Europe as more material to ensure that the chains of Turkey’s anchor with Europe are not shortened, but lengthened.

There are, of course, strategic reasons, both in terms of the economic and the political domains, which ensure that Turkey and the EU cannot ultimately afford to sever these chains and float away from each other. This is also the context in which Prime Minister Erdoğan’s Europe Day message has to be read.

In other words, his message does not provide any new perspective or hope on the topic. It is merely a “pro-forma” message that had to be made for the books for diplomatic reasons. Otherwise, Swoboda is correct when he says Turkey is further away from EU membership today, while Çavuşoğlu is wrong in claiming the opposite.