“If we finally get a civilian constitution, we will be able to witness the EU process picking up significant momentum, just like what happened in Portugal and Spain,” Bağış told a group of local businessmen in the northwestern province of Kocaeli. “The EU process will speed up after Sept. 12,” he said.
Bağış’s visit to Kocaeli, which included stops at local trade and industry chambers, the municipality and the governor’s office, is one of his routine trips to Anatolian provinces to answer questions about the EU reforms in meetings with local public organizations. The chief EU negotiator, according to his staff, goes on those visits about three or four times a month.
With the referendum on the government-backed constitutional reforms approaching, the questions Bağış faces are increasingly focusing on these changes, which won clear backing from the EU. One local businessman pointed out that the reforms were opposed by the opposition parties and asked why the government did not seek endorsement from all parties in Parliament. Bağış, in response, lamented that the government had tried on more than one occasion to include the opposition in the process of formulating the changes but that it was surprised to see even the parties at the very opposite ends of the political spectrum united in opposing the reform.
He accused the opposition parties of misrepresenting the planned reforms to the public as part of a political battle, whereby a “yes” vote would mean support for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). Bağış said none of the changes was to serve the interests of the ruling party and urged his audience to focus on the content of the package.
The government hopes that the changes will be passed in the referendum, although public surveys show the race between the “yes” and “no” camps will be a tight one. The EU, which Turkey has for decades aspired to join, is most likely to be pleased with the approval of the reform plan but, with public enthusiasm fading fast for eventual membership, EU support may not be a sufficient stimulus for Turks to vote in favor of the changes.
One businessman in Bağış’s audience asked why Turkey was trying that hard to join the EU while an association with Muslim countries would be both easier and more profitable. Bağış had to list the advances Turkey has made in human rights and freedoms to meet the EU’s standards for first winning candidate status and then getting the accession talks started. “Only 50 years ago, Turkey was a country which executed its own prime minister after a coup; only 30 years ago, Turkey was a country where [Russian novelist Fyodor] Dostoyevsky’s books were seized; 10 years ago, Turkey was a country where the mayor of its biggest city was convicted for reciting a poem written in textbooks,” Bağış said.
But, in what appears to be an acknowledgement of widespread misgivings about Turkish membership in Europe, he said what matters is the process of membership itself, not whether or not it will lead to membership one day.
“Once Turkey becomes a country with a democracy up to EU standards and with an economy as advanced as a European country, even I don’t care if we become a member or not,” he said.