The title of my piece is a bit strange because there is nothing special in sight about 2013. Turkey started accession talks with the EU in 2005. But little has been achieved in terms of the opening and closing chapters. The annual EU progress report on Turkey has become, especially in recent years, a tool of mutual criticism and growing mistrust.
Yet, those who maintain their belief in Turkey’s EU membership look to the next year and say “Perhaps this year…”
My choice of 2013 as a new start in Turkish-EU relations is based on the conviction that both Turkey and the EU know that they have to do more to get the accession process moving. They both realize that there are common concerns but also differences that require their full attention. They both say that they will not give up on the process until and unless the other side does so. But both sides add that they will not be the one to call it off.
So, this puts Turkey’s EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış in a rather unenviable position. His job is to convince two parties that are showing less and less zeal and excitement for being in the same club. He has been trying to explain to his European counterparts why an EU with Turkey in it will be a stronger political and economic power. He conveys to them the growing frustration on the Turkish side. If there is enlargement fatigue in Europe, there is negotiation fatigue in Turkey.
Bağış raises a key issue here: the double standard that the anti-Turkey camp in the EU has. No other member country was subjected to the conditions and provisions which Turkey is being subjected to today. No other country has had to open and close 30-plus chapters with an open-ended outcome (i.e., a final referendum on Turkey’s full membership even after it fulfills all the requirements). Bağış has not received any convincing responses from EU leaders as to why Turkey is being kept at the door and then blamed for not making any progress on the accession talks, chapters, reforms, etc. Bağış’s conclusion is that this is a double standard, and I doubt anybody can blame him for saying this.
The same double standard is in effect, I believe, in the current visa talks. While Turkey has agreed to the return agreement as a precondition, the EU side is introducing new conditions before it allows Turkey to become part of the Schengen visa system. If the EU is seriously interested in pushing Turkey towards full membership and the Copenhagen criteria, it should allow progress on the chapters and the visa issue. The Irish presidency, which will be followed by the Lithuanian presidency in 2013, can provide new opportunities.
Back home, the Turkish support for EU membership is dwindling. This is a fact which Bağış has to deal with. How do you convince a growingly mistrustful public that the EU is a good thing for Turkey even though Europeans do not want us among them? If we want an answer to the question of what happened to the excited, mobilized and engaged Turkish public about the EU, we need to look at how European leaders managed their political positions and public relations with Turkey. A cold shoulder is not a warm invitation.
Despite all this, progress is possible. In his last visits to two European capitals, Madrid and Berlin, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reiterated his commitment to the EU goal. In terms of political criteria and economic performance, Turkey maintains its dynamism. A third judicial reform package was passed back in July and was hailed as a major step towards greater democratization in Turkey. The fourth judicial reform package is being discussed in the Cabinet. The Turkish economy, while readjusting its growth target, remains strong.
So, what is the way forward? Strong political leadership and a focus on Turkey’s membership can break the current impasse. The Irish government, which will take over the EU presidency in about three weeks, has already stated its commitment to opening at least one chapter. This is not enough but still a positive step. French President François Hollande is still expected to deliver on his promise to re-energize Turkish-French relations at the bilateral and EU levels. Progress on the visa negotiations will also substantially improve the current state of relations between Turkey and the EU.
2013 may not be a miracle year. But we can all use it to the benefit of Turkey, EU and the world.