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December 13, 2012, Thursday

Lost years

Turkey’s EU accession is making a late reappearance on the European agenda.

French President François Hollande is also under pressure to reverse his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy’s policies and lift a veto his country imposed on several chapters of the acquis. But can these welcome, but timid, signs of changing winds blowing from Europe revive the flagging accession process?

Timing matters, in politics as in everything else. In the intervening years, circumstances have changed drastically in Turkey, and the EU itself has become a moving target. What kind of EU will Turkey be joining? With the goal of accession still several years off in the best of circumstances, I’m not sure anyone has the answer, as the EU is seeking its own way forward. The image of a solid bloc with steadfast rules has been battered by the prolonged eurozone crisis, which has affected popular perceptions of the union in member states as well as in candidate countries like Turkey.

Any move that can help Turkey find its way back to the path of reforms is welcome, but reviving the process after years of political neglect on both sides will be an arduous task that will require strong political will. Turkey’s candidacy should have been embraced by the Europeans at a time when the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) still firmly believed in the benefits of membership and were prepared to shape their policies accordingly.

The Turkish economy still relies on EU nations for an important part of its trade and foreign investment, but the Turkish government often gives the impression of having untethered itself from the EU and its principles, even if it still regularly pays lip service to the accession project. Europe’s own troubles as well as the hostility displayed toward Turkey by some member states have eroded enthusiasm for the project in this country. A decade ago, the EU was seen as the yardstick in all policy areas. These days, references to it in the media and in government are much rarer.

But Turkey still needs the EU, and especially the roadmap to accession, for more than just economic reasons. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used to claim that Ankara would make the Copenhagen criteria its own, whatever happened to his country’s candidacy. This has clearly not happened. In fact, every day brings new evidence that Turkey is drifting away from these criteria. Some of the obstacles that had hindered its candidacy in the past -- a dysfunctional judiciary, a lack of accountability, limits to freedom of the press and Turkey’s approach to the Kurdish issue -- are again looming large.

On Thursday, the case of sociologist Pınar Selek, acquitted three times of having placed a lethal bomb at the Egyptian Bazaar in 1998, will be back in court. Several expert reports have attributed the blast to a gas leak, but prosecutors insist that the human rights activist should spend her life in prison. Last month, the 12th High Criminal Court in İstanbul, which had acquitted Selek early last year and spent 21 months contesting the Supreme Court of Appeals’ objections to its verdict, abruptly changed course when a new judge was brought in, while the presiding judge who had close knowledge of the file was on sick leave.

The families of the 34 civilians killed nearly a year ago at Uludere are still asking for official answers. So are the relatives of several young soldiers who were among the 934 young men who have committed suicide while serving in the military in the past decade. In several of these cases, the families believe they have evidence that their sons were killed. Will they get answers?

Then there is the recent move to exclude some ministries and key state institutions from the scope of the Public Procurement Law, which suggests that the government is reneging on its promise to deliver more transparency and accountability.

More positive engagement on the part of EU politicians may encourage the Turkish government to return to democratic reforms. But while Turkey has prospered and progressed in many areas in the intervening years, democratization is not one of them, and there is now much ground to make up.

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