What Hollande means for a Social Democratic CHP

What Hollande means for a Social Democratic CHP

If there is a foreign country with a good reason to celebrate François Hollande´s election as the president of France, it is Turkey. The outgoing president, Nicolas Sarkozy, did not believe that Turkey belonged to Europe culturally and geographically. That led France to block five chapters in the EU accession negotiations, which are relevant to Turkey´s EU membership. Will President Hollande bring change to his country´s relations with Turkey, both bilaterally and in the context of the EU enlargement?

At first sight, the question might seem awkward in light of the challenges that Hollande already faces with the severe economic downturn in the eurozone. Hollande´s choice of Laurent Fabius as the minister of foreign affairs and Bernard Cazeneuve as the minister for European affairs suggests little appetite for further enlargement of the EU. It would also be naive to expect France (and other EU member states) to drop the demand that Turkey recognize the Republic of Cyprus. There are also other traditional irritants in bilateral relations, such as the Armenian issue.

There is one area, however, where Hollande can make a crucial difference. By eschewing the acrimonious debate on religious and cultural compatibility of Turkey with the EU and focusing instead on reforms that Turkey needs to join the EU, he can help to restore the credibility of the EU accession process. And with credibility comes the leverage: If Turkey perceives that it is treated fairly and has a realistic chance of joining the EU, it would be easier for the EU to push for the agenda needed to that end.

Concerns are growing in Turkey and among its European friends about the lack of progress on reforms and even backslide in some areas, such as free speech, rule of law and women´s rights. The ruling conservative Justice and Development Party, or AKP, unrestrained by internal checks and balances, feels increasingly tempted to consolidate its grip on the institutions at the expense of deepening democracy. A fresh start in the EU negotiations could provide a much needed external anchor for reform and check what many see as the AKP´s creeping authoritarianism.

This offers a historic opportunity for Turkey´s main opposition Republican People´s Party, or CHP, to reposition itself as Turkey´s main pro-European party. Indeed, its leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has tried this by improving CHP´s relations with its political family - the European Social-Democracy – which were seriously impaired due to his predecessor´s often nationalistic politics. The CHP has shown new interest in engaging in debate on the issues of common interest for European progressive forces, from economic and social crisis to the future of the Arab Spring.

But more can and needs to be done. By reclaiming the European project, the CHP would increase the pressure to reform on the AKP and give more ammunition to the supporters of Turkey´s EU bid in European capitals. It would enable the CHP to capitalize on its links with the European Social-Democracy and put it in a better position to convince the French Socialists to unblock the five chapters in the accession process vetoed by Sarkozy. By approaching the EU issue strategically, the CHP should not get bogged down by disagreements over issues like Cyprus or Armenia. This strategy can work, since a substantial number of Turks (no less than 40 percent according to most polls) still support the goal of EU accession. Many more would probably join them if the accession process were to regain its credibility. This is why the election of François Holland as the president of France, while not leading to a fast-track toward EU membership, can expand the political space for Turkey´s pro-European forces. As the AKP loses interest in further reform, the CHP is well advised to claim the role of Turkey’s most pro-European party. This will be right for the CHP and for Turkey´s future as a democratic, secular and modern republic.

*Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament; Can Selçuki is a researcher at the Brussels-based think tank Centre for European Policies Studies; they both write in their personal capacities.