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December 13, 2012, Thursday

Sobering experiences in Europe

I spent last week in two important European capitals: Brussels and Berlin. I had not been in Brussels for a long time and thus made sure to meet with most of the relevant EU people on Turkey.

I must admit I knew that I was not going to hear very positive things in Brussels as the negotiation process is in a serious crisis. However, after three days in Brussels I was astonished by the extent to which the Turkey discourse had deteriorated. Widespread disappointment is a common theme among folks who work on Turkey. The consensus is that news coming from Turkey has been very discouraging. Most analysts and officials feel that the Turkish government has given up on the EU drive.

A recent report drafted by Professor Fuat Keyman and Associate Professor Senem Aydın-Düzgit titled “EU-Turkey Relations and the Stagnation of Turkish Democracy?” offered a sobering assessment during a closed roundtable event in Brussels. The authors demonstrated the consistent decline in Turkish reforms as well as a clear trend in the worsening of important political criteria such as torture, press freedom, freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association, the judicial system and minority rights. In almost every index that has been measured Turkey's record is declining, and in some cases embarrassingly behind a multitude of countries. One EU official who asked to remain anonymous noted that Turkey would not be able to meet the political criteria today if it were at the beginning of the process. This is hard stuff and not easy to swallow. The Turkoskeptics in the EU are quite happy with these developments as they now have even more reasons to convince others to join the swelling opposition to Turkish membership. However, this is not something we can observe on a stand-by mode. We need to examine very carefully what has gone wrong. It is one thing to be upset about the impediments put in our way in the negotiation process; it is another to bring about the worsening of important political criteria as listed above.

Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin was also in Brussels when I was there. Ergin comes across as genuine and natural. He was widely appreciated as a serious counterpart by the Eurocracy. He discusses issues in a professional manner and has left very positive impressions. He should visit Brussels more often.

Following Brussels I was fortunate to be in Berlin for another Turkey event. The mood in the German capital was upbeat from a European perspective. The Germans are happy to see that their insistence on making important reforms has produced results. Most analysts predict that the European Union will emerge much stronger from this crisis. Contrary to the gloom and Schadenfreude prevalent in Turkey, the EU is likely to recover, albeit at an uneven pace. On Turkey, similar skepticism pervaded the German capital. That said, the social democrats, particularly the Social Democratic Party of Germany's (SPD) Dietmar Nietan, who among other things is also the leader of the SPD's Coordination Group on Turkey, has provided inspiring comments on relations between Turkey and the EU. The SPD is clearly more constructive on Turkey than the ruling Christian Democrats. However, the less than encouraging news from Turkey has clouded the Turkey debate among social democrats as well. That Turkey was not debating what the UK's intention to re-negotiate its relationship with the EU means for Turkey was seen as odd. Clearly, this is a debate that needs to be had. This is not something the government should do. It is incumbent on think tanks to start such a process.

In both capitals Turkey is seen to be solely preoccupied with the Middle East. There is an increasing tendency to view Turkey as a Middle Eastern country, especially in Washington. This is a dangerous development. Turkey needs to reconfirm its European vocation. This cannot be done with rhetoric but with concrete deeds. It is time to demonstrate that Turkey also values its European vocation.

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