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June 21, 2011, Tuesday

People in Ankara are fed up

The blunt words above come from one of the most experienced, pro-Europe diplomats in Turkey. This remark was a very timely one.

After an incident-free national election, with a turnout level no longer seen in Europe, and the formation of a parliament that represents almost 95 percent of the people, Mr. Selim Kuneralp had to say what had to be told to the apathetic EU circles about how Turkey sees its process of full accession.

“In the absence of any clear perspective of accession, there's no reason why Turkey should tailor its legislation to narrow EU standards. To put it simply, the EU has lost its leverage on Turkey,” was his diagnosis on the current status of the Turkish-EU relations.

These words reflect perfectly the mood among the decision makers as well as the public in general. Although (according to a recent survey by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) think tank) some 55 to 60 percent still support EU membership, those who believe the “EU will never approve of us as a member” are below 40 percent.

When the Turks went to the polls on June 12, it was evident that their perception of Europe had also changed, compared to what it had been in the 2002 and 2007 elections. What they see now is a union crumbling from deep economic crisis, falling into disarray with respect to the overall strategy in foreign policy, unable to prevent the continent from being overcome by xenophobia, racism and growing enmity for Islam. Topped by the Greek crisis, and spreading anti-immigrant sentiments, this image has now a deteriorating effect: “Is this the EU that we will join?” the people here ask more and more.

Once upon a time, when “old Turkey” was only exporting problems beyond its borders, many Turks (and Kurds) sought to flee to the EU countries to earn money legally or illegally. Now they visit those countries to spend money. At the “people level” there is no longer any clear rationale as to why the EU insists on its strict, humiliating visa regime. It is the EU that loses out on large quantities of tourist income and misses a great opportunity to acquaint the “new Turks” with its old, prejudiced public.

There is no rationale (in terms of an EU strategy) either for France to keep five chapters blocked, although it is well-known that the six blocked by Cyprus is based on sheer short-sightedness at best or downright enmity at worst.

Certainly the eight chapters blocked by the Commission are related to Turkey's refusal to open its air and seaports to Cyprus, but that Ankara is fed up with it is based on a deep mistrust due to a lack of perspective. What is the point of doing so if France continues to put up its own resistance above the will of the EU by blocking key chapters and as long as there is no timetable for the completion of the accession process?

On the positive side, the Turkish democracy is functioning, entering now into a phase of deepening, despite the setbacks by the EU over the past three or four years.

But this is a risky path. Until the June elections, the EU was the only real “constructive opposition” to the ruling Justice and Development (AK Party); it showed in many critical aspects -- through progress reports -- that it was taking steps in the right direction, such as by contributing its views on the judicial reform and displaying support for last year's amendments in the Constitution. Now, as the leverage is weakening, both the speed and content of reforms will fall out of its reach, leaving no room for complaints if Turkey acts entirely on its own in key foreign and economic policy issues.

The sad part is a powerful point the EU in its myopia seems to have missed completely: it owes a considerable part of the “Arab Spring” to the Turkey it helped resolutely transform between 2002 and 2005. The more it backed the reformist policies of Muslim democrats (AK Party) at that time, the more it exposed a successful democratic change to Arab minds. If Turkey is an inspiration for an entire region today, it is due to the “soft power” of the EU.

But, apparently unaware -- or deliberately negligent -- of this “key role,” the EU denies an opening for a crucial country like Turkey, and remains in denial of itself. Let us hope that those who are far-sighted and clear-minded take the lead and stop the process of losing Turkey. 

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