Brand new constitution a must for Turkey’s EU membership

September 19, 2010, Sunday/ 12:22:00
While Turkish-EU relations have experienced a major breakthrough over the past two weeks thanks to the results of the Sept. 12 constitutional referendum, experts say the recent reforms could only be regarded as a catalyst for further, wider and more comprehensive reforms.The EU Commission and several other officials, along with individual member states, welcomed the referendum results -- which will limit the military’s power in politics and restructure the high judiciary similar to EU models. The reform package also includes debate-proof articles such as those on gender equality and more rights to children and the disabled.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said after the referendum that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would be able to show more determination for a new constitutional reform drive. In addition, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle said the commission welcomed the approval of the constitutional reforms in the referendum, which demonstrated the continued commitment of Turkish citizens to reforms that enhance their rights and freedoms. “As we have consistently said in the past months, these reforms are a step in the right direction as they address a number of long-standing priorities in Turkey’s efforts towards fully complying with the accession criteria,” Füle stressed.

The European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur, Ria Oomen-Ruijten, also praised the high turnout and called on Turkey to continue reform efforts and for the government to work together with the opposition.

Deputy Director of the Center for European Reform (CER) Katinka Barysch said although the constitutional amendments were mostly an improvement, they were not enough to turn Turkey into a fully functioning democracy. “For that Turkey will indeed need a new constitution, one that rests on a broad social and political consensus. And it needs effective, impartial implementation of its constitution and laws. This is still a long process,” she said.

Before proceeding to the discussions that Turkey has become a more democratic state and that this will help Turkey’s EU membership bid, Can Baydarol, a Turkey-based EU expert, said it was necessary to look over the EU’s “pretexts” for not accepting Turkey. “These are political reasons,” Baydarol said. According to him, neither Greece nor Portugal was democratic or economically developed when EU leaders made a political decision to welcome them into the bloc. EU countries, Baydarol argued, planned to transform and address the shortcomings of these countries once they had accepted them.

Noting that even if Turkey developed the “the most democratic constitution on earth,” the EU officials would again put forth other persisting problems, such as the issue of Cyprus, for instance, as a reason for excluding Turkey, Baydarol stated.

Baydarol said following these “axis shift” debates over the past months, EU officials had increasingly started to reiterate and understand Turkey’s role and strategic importance for the EU.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said on Tuesday, while speaking before deputies in the Italian Parliament, that Turkey’s EU membership is not only useful for Ankara but also for the EU. “Turkey’s EU membership will be positive in dialogue regarding the EU’s regional policies with Iran, Caucasus and the Middle East.”

During the informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels last week, Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb hailed Turkey as “one of the top five countries in the world today” while assessing Turkey’s growing clout and influence with its confident, assertive foreign policy of recent times.

Speaking about the commitment of the EU officials in taking positive steps regarding Turkey’s EU membership, Barysch said the fact that Turkey had -- after years of doing very little -- shown that it could adopt useful reforms would disarm those in the EU who had argued that the stalling of Turkey’s accession process was Turkey’s fault.

She said this would only highlight how little the EU had left to negotiate, given how many of the chapters are blocked by the EU and its member-states. “So the referendum has put the ball back into the EU’s court. It has also re-focused attention on Cyprus where the cause of many of the blockages lie,” she said.

Baydarol said it seemed the EU was divided into two parts regarding Turkey’s EU membership: Germany and France on one hand and the rest on the other. Saying that approval of the constitutional reform package was a positive step, he added that this should not be exaggerated.

He said the people of Turkey still lived under the military coup constitution despite numerous attempts to amend the supreme law and said the “whole equilibrium regarding the state-citizen relationship should be changed. A brand new constitution is must,” he said.

Adam Hug, a policy director at The Foreign Policy Centre in London, said the new constitutional reforms could be a turning point for Turkey’s EU membership -- but he said this was possible if it was used as a springboard for further and deeper reforms.

“This must be an opportunity for Erdoğan to reach out to the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and to civil society to engage in a meaningful dialogue on moving forward to create a new and inclusive constitution, and must not be the end to the process,” Hug noted.

While many of Turkey’s human rights problems do stem from the Constitution, or its interpretation, Hug said, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) needed to demonstrate its commitment to the freedom of the press, push forward engagement with the Kurds and make headway in the difficult technical reforms in order to kick start Turkey’s EU accession process. He also said this must be reciprocated by European leaders recommitting to a long-term vision of full Turkish EU membership.

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