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October 11, 2012, Thursday

Non-progress report

Reactions to the EU’s progress report on Turkey, its 15th since 1998, can only be summed up as a deep sigh of frustration.

The age of hope for accession is bleak; Turkey has turned into a slow vehicle passed on the highway by one Balkan country after another. The report follows a period in which the vehicle for a six-month-period has stopped at the side of the road, with the handbrake on.

The tone and content of the report leave no doubt about the sad state of affairs in Turkey’s biggest trade partner, the continent to which it is strongly tied through at least 34 big institutions. The apparent political stagnation at home with regard to reforms, coupled with the growing economic crisis and the worrisome escalation of far-right, neo-Nazi, xenophobic politics in many parts of the EU, reflect gloom.

In a nutshell, the report regrets the harshly confrontational and maximalist political culture; growing -- at times, violent -- intolerance for dissent, visible arbitrariness of power; stalled efforts on transparency and accountability; profound flaws in the rule of law; continuous breaches of human rights; media made even more miserable in its “state of independence”; and lack of excitement concerning a brand new, democratic constitution.

The report can surely not be shrugged off because in its eagerness for objectivity and fairness, it has remained consistent. It remains as a mirror that reflects much of the reality, and it is constructive.

Yes, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has since the elections last year more or less abandoned its pro-EU agenda. Apparent asymmetry between the AKP and the main opposition, as much as the Republican People’s Party (CHP) has not much to say in favor of the EU accession process, coupled with the stalemate between Ankara and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) helped worsen the situation. Feeling victorious and invincible, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, focused sharply on becoming the next, empowered president of the republic, shifted towards a nationalist-conservative block and dropped the EU as a priority. He was unchallenged in it. Yes, reforms have gone on, but almost all of them, including the Commercial Code (TTK), fell short of EU norms.

But, Egemen Bağış, the chief negotiator for Turkey in EU accession talks, is certainly right when he lashes out at the EU, expressing disappointment. He is not alone in feeling the frustration. Stefan Füle, whose constructive role and cooperation for a “positive agenda” with Bağış is truly commendable, is right when he points out the obvious schizophrenia within the union, with the European Commission pulling in one direction and two member countries, France and Cyprus, the other. The process, meanwhile, remains hijacked.

Is the EU also responsible for the deteriorating state of democratization here? Yes, it certainly is. Hélène Flautre, a Green MEP and chair of the European Parliament’s Turkey delegation, is spot on: “It is deceptive to describe this report as a progress report on Turkey’s EU accession process when there is no progress. It is a major source of regret that no new negotiating chapter has been opened with Turkey for over two years.”

“The report itself addresses some of the key issues in Turkey, as regards freedom of expression and the media, judicial reform, the revision of the anti-terror law and the drafting of a new constitution. However, it is hard to understand the purpose of the exercise given the stalled nature of the accession process. With Turkey in the process of discussing a new constitution, the EU could hardly have picked a worse time to abdicate its influence on reforms in the country. At the same time as the Commission is calling for closer cooperation in areas like energy or foreign policy, EU member states are blocking negotiations on these chapters of the accession negotiations. Against the background of the situation in the neighboring region -- with Syria, Iran and the Arab Spring -- the EU’s policy towards Turkey is incoherent and ineffective,” she said.

No one can convincingly explain why France still blocks some chapters in the negotiations. It has no rationale, yet the other members ignore it. Cyprus, of course, is a different matter. But, again, other EU members do not want to see the shrewd Cypriot strategy, which (coupled with Ankara’s regrettable hesitation to open its ports for trade) remains aimed at nullifying the crucial UN talks. There shall not be any tangible progress on the island and between Cyprus and Turkey, as long as the UN talks are undermined deliberately as part of this non-constructive strategy. It cannot go on like this.

Any way out? As Füle implies, a new spirit is called for. After the end of the Cypriot presidency, momentum could arise: 2013 is the 50th anniversary of the Association Agreement between Ankara and the EU (then the EEC). In the fog of despair there are some concrete steps to be taken. I shall return to the subject.

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