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December 09, 2012, Sunday

Reset with the visa

What is to be expected of Turkish-EU relations in 2013? The past three years have been the lost ones. The prospects are bleak and rather unforeseeable at the moment.

It may seem that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government continued until late 2010 with reforms, but as a matter of fact those reforms that were passed were either generously used to consolidate its power within the state apparatus, or contained -- like the ones in the Commercial Code or Trade Unions' Law -- serious flaws. Its pace has not come to a full halt since the June 2011 national polls, but has slowed down to the minimum.

What caused the most serious damage and the loss of precious time in the past three years has been the arbitrary, not to say irrational, blockage by France of five chapters. Added to the blockage by Greek Cyprus, this sui generis situation has led to a loss of appetite among Turkish people, weakened the pro-EU flanks within the government and state and given the AKP leadership a pretext to break loose from the agenda of normalization, strengthening official intolerance of dissent.

The unfortunate part of domestic politics of Turkey is the fact that the increasing frost between the AKP and the EU did not help awaken the main opposition, Republican People's Party (CHP) to develop a strong, pro-EU agenda. The current situation is, from the vantage point of any progress, a clash with the unchanged intensity between two conservative blocs -- each fiercely poised to oppose their respective conservatism. Tutelage is being replaced with a new one, as the power shifts. It is most visible in projects and discourses about lifestyle.

The asymmetry between a powerful, enormously popular party and a weak, compass-less main opposition is destabilizing if one cares for the future of democracy. But the current state-of-affairs does show us that it will remain so for at least five to 10 years. The dilemma it presents is that the democratization project cannot simply be left at the mercy of a party and a single leader, whose vanity has been going hand in hand with arbitrary behavior.

Until three or so years ago, two elements pushed back the hegemony of a single majority party and its trap of arbitrariness. Both elements had to with oppositional qualities -- one within the raison d'etre of the AKP and the other external, with the EU and its norms as the road map.

Both are gone. The hope, of course, is that this will be temporary. For about a decade, what made the AKP interesting was the fact that it was acting as an oppositional force against the old regime, while strengthening its power, election after election. The zenith of this particular phenomenon was the referendum in September 2010, and its decline started with the national elections in June 2012. The era came to an almost complete halt by the election of a public ombudsman, a judge who by many accounts represents the very old regime the AKP fought with considerable success.

The Kurdish issue is forcing the AKP to the extent that the faded feature of “opposition” has started to surface again. Also, imposed debates such as the one about a new presidential system and the incomplete and insufficient consensus on a draft constitution may speed it further up. But this may not be enough to “reset” the reform spirit; as I already mentioned, the opposition tramps on the same ground.

Turkey, with its qualities, and its immense value as strategic partner, therefore needs a new approach with the EU. The recent developments in the neighboring regions also showed the limitations of trade and economic growth for Ankara; it needs to develop more trade and investment with the EU -- its partner of destiny. The EU, on the other hand, must recognize and acknowledge that an integrated Turkey is an enormous asset in all dimensions for its relations with the East.

Ireland taking over as president for the union is a great opportunity. It can all start again with a single concrete step as a confidence building measure: finalize the Readmission Agreement, and regularize five-year-long multiple-entry visas for Turkish citizens in the Schengen area. The rest may follow in due course.

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