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December 16, 2011, Friday

Turkey’s alignment with the EU goes on

It was one of the hectic weeks leading up to the June 12 national elections in Turkey. I was in my office two blocks away from the Foreign Ministry in the Balgat district of Ankara having a candid chat with a foreign analyst who was quizzing me to get some insight into what would likely happen in the post-election period in the country.

During the conversation, he asked me to verify one of the most bizarre rumors I had ever heard in this gossipy city, which undoubtedly injects politics into practically everything. The gentleman said the Turkish government was about to throw in the towel on the EU bid and would be abolishing the Secretariat General for EU Affairs (ABGS), merging it with the European Affairs desk in the Foreign Ministry.

Naturally I was surprised to hear this rumor as I had not seen a shred of evidence leading me to believe that the government would discard the ABGS. I said to him it would be quite unlikely because the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government is well aware of the value the ABGS brings to Turkish agencies and institutions. Furthermore, at the time the ABGS was continuing to hire the best and brightest in the bureaucracy and was expanding more than ever to meet the growing challenges of harmonization. But the best response came a week later when I was traveling in the car next to Egemen Bağış, the minister for EU affairs and chief negotiator, who had just delivered a campaign speech in Çeşme and was en route to İzmir. He asked me to take a glance at a flash message he had just received on his BlackBerry, which said the government had created a stand-alone EU Ministry while it was restructuring the Cabinet. That was indeed a significant message for the EU that Turkey was very much committed to the EU membership negotiations.

I think we sometimes put too much stock in the rhetoric of politicians either in the EU or in Turkey, which mostly caters to a domestic audience for easy political scoring. Beyond and behind those messages blaming the other side for the stalled EU bid, there is a strong mechanism going on to align Turkey with the EU acquis. It may be technical, difficult to understand, mired in details and hardly makes the news headlines, but the process keeps going on nonetheless. This is not an unreciprocated love affair for which only Turkey is interested to save what seems to be a troubled relationship at the moment. Some 140 people represent the EU Commission in Turkey, by far the largest EU delegation in a single country, a testament that Brussels very much values its ties with emerging Turkey and would like to see the accession talks successfully finalized with full membership.  

I realized the vitality and the keen interest in the EU once more last week when I was invited by the EU Ministry to participate in a panel discussion with local media representatives in beautiful İzmir on the Aegean coast in which not only İzmir but also neighboring provinces were represented. The event, titled “Turkish Local Media on the EU Path Project,” was the eighth regional information seminar organized by the EU Ministry in cooperation with the UK. Organizers originally targeted 250 local media professionals in 69 provinces in a total of 10 seminars to be held in various parts of the country. They had already reached 412 local and regional media representatives by the time the İzmir seminar was held last week. It looks like the EU Ministry will easily double its original target audience by the time the seminars are over. Officials told me they had to turn away many applicants to seminars because they had simply run out of space to accommodate more.

What struck me the most was the apparent enthusiasm and strong engagement in the seminar discussions from local media professionals, some of whom had traveled quite a ways to get there. The questions we received were not only those relevant to the local audience; some were related to national and global issues as well. It was obvious from the start that the EU Ministry puts a lot of emphasis on these seminars at the local level, understandably so, considering the low approval numbers of the EU in the general public. Bağış assigned one of the best and dynamic teams in his ministry to steer these informative and educational seminars at the local level. The funding mostly comes from the British Embassy in Ankara, which co-sponsors the local media project with 118,000 pounds. The EU Ministry, along with other partners, has already tripled the original amount of funds it allocated for this project, reaching 34,000 pounds. The total amount of money spent on this program is not that large, but it makes quite a difference.

Not only that, but there are a lot of other important events happening to raise awareness of the EU process among the Turkish public, some away from the media spotlight. For example, the chief negotiator, Bağış, convinced the government to assign a deputy governor and district governor who would be responsible for EU issues in each and every province. This led to the creation of the Provincial EU Advisory and Steering Committees (EU PASC), which works at the local level. They hold regular meetings to follow what is happening with the EU alignment process at the provincial level. Bağış attends most of them to show the importance of these meetings. The ultimate aim is to have all of Turkey's 81 provinces discussing the issue of EU accession.

But most importantly, the main engine for the EU reform drive is the Reform Monitoring Group (RİG), which convenes once every two months with the participation of the ministers of justice, foreign affairs, internal affairs and EU affairs. This powerful quartet helps push the implementation of reforms by cutting through bureaucratic impediments and red tape. To spread awareness on a national scale and connect with people across the country, they hold meetings in different provinces every time. For example, the ministers will gather in Konya on Sunday for 24th RİG meeting.

The EU Ministry also convenes working groups called Internal Coordination and Harmonization Committees (İKUK) every six weeks from all ministries and agencies to map out the strategy on how to address shortcomings. The ministries are forced to hire experts on EU affairs that fall in their jurisdictions with relevant negotiating chapters. This in turn enhances the capacity of Turkish institutions to absorb EU directives and regulations. Occasionally, on specific chapters, the EU Ministry also organizes special İKUK meetings with the relevant ministries and agencies.

Politically charged rhetoric and trading accusations catering to domestic constituencies aside, Turkey's alignment with the EU in technical fields does not seem to have lost its steam, and this is certainly an encouraging sign for EU advocates, including the author of this column.

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