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February 25, 2013, Monday

Demonstrating intent

It wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while expressing her doubts, nevertheless gave tentative support to Turkey's EU accession process and agreed that it should proceed. France also recently announced that it would lift its ban on one of five chapters of the acquis which it had vetoed.

These timid signs of progress may not amount to much, but for now at least, they are probably as much as Turkey can expect. The economic turmoil across the eurozone has further reduced an already flagging appetite for EU enlargement and with elections coming up later this year, the German chancellor is unlikely to be vocal in her support of Turkey's membership bid.

These small steps do, however, provide an opportunity for Ankara to get the EU ball rolling again, should it want to. The question is: Will Turkey, seeing the door ajar, push to widen the opening? How committed is Ankara to the EU accession process?

Much has been said in Turkey over the past years about European unfairness toward Turkey, the growing wave of racism and right-wing xenophobia across the continent and the feeling that Islamophobia is often coloring popular perceptions of Turkey in Europe.

These grievances are legitimate to a large extent, but there has been too little self-questioning on Turkey's part about the way it, too, feeds negative perceptions with flawed policies, strident political statements or the shocking decisions of its judiciary. If Ankara believes that EU membership is in Turkey's interest and genuinely wants the process to gain new momentum, the authorities need to be more consistent in their messages than they have been in recent years.

When Europe's multiculturalism is discussed in Turkey, it is always from the narrow perspective of the needs, wants and grievances of the Turkish community abroad. Little attempt is made to understand some of the genuine challenges that European countries are facing, nor is there enough debate on the rigid understanding of Turkishness promoted by Ankara that at times hinders, rather than supports, the cause of communities of Turkish origin in Europe. While Turkey is still struggling to embrace its own internal cultural diversity, its limited tolerance for the different points of views and lifestyles is likely to be further tested in the future, especially as its rising economic status makes it more attractive to migrant workers seeking better opportunities.

Ankara also needs to consider the impact on European public opinion of Turkey's repressive legislation, which regularly makes headlines abroad. The recent sentence of five years, two months and 15 days imposed on French-Turkish exchange student Sevil Sevimli who, along with a Turkish student, was punished for exercising the right to protest which she took for granted in France, is unlikely to have improved Turkey's image in her country of residence, where the case was followed closely. The same applies to the 15-year judicial saga involving sociologist Pınar Selek, who recently received a verdict of life imprisonment after being previously acquitted on three occasions. Her case, too, has mobilized opinion in Strasbourg.

Lately the Directorate of Overseas Turks has complained that in some European countries, children of Turkish origin are being arbitrarily removed from their parents and handed over to non-Turkish foster parents. Discussing specific cases with the relevant authorities in Europe may be called for, but accusing European countries of implementing policies of assimilation or fuelling outraged xenophobic reactions is not the best way to go about it.

Actions rather than words are needed to demonstrate Turkey's intent. If the Turkish government succeeds in its current attempt to secure a long-term settlement of the Kurdish question, it will provide proof that it is committed to more reforms and that Turkey wants to embrace a more inclusive form of citizenship which accommodates the country's inherent diversity. Not only would it prevent more bloodshed and secure social and political stability in the country, such an achievement would also go a long way toward changing perceptions of Turkey abroad. The peace process remains very fragile and it requires the cooperation of Kurdish politicians and militant leaders, but through these delicate negotiations, Turkey is making choices for its future. Their outcome will have an impact on external as well as internal balances.

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