Intellectual Mehmet Altan says EU derailment will harm Turkish public

Intellectual Mehmet Altan says EU derailment will harm Turkish public

Mehmet Altan

January 10, 2011, Monday/ 16:31:00

With Turkey unable to open an entirely technical chapter, which is one of only three European Union acquis chapters that are currently eligible to be opened, during the six-month-long rotating EU presidency of Belgium, which finished at the end of 2010, one of Turkey's critics has been academic and writer Mehmet Altan.

Answering our questions for Monday Talk, Altan said if Turkey becomes disenchanted with its long-desired membership in the EU, the Turkish public will be hurt the most as the majority of the people support the country's membership in the 27-nation bloc.

“People know they will reap the benefits from EU membership. Thanks to harmonization laws with the EU, brake systems on school buses have been upgraded. Could we not have done that without the EU even though our children are our biggest priority? Unfortunately, our politics have been inconsiderate of individuals,” he said.

Turkey, which formally began accession negotiations with the EU in 2005, has so far opened talks on only 13 chapters. The EU suspended accession talks on eight out of 35 chapters in 2006 due to Turkey’s refusal to open its ports and airports to traffic from Greek Cyprus. Altan, who is a columnist for the Star daily, has been fiercely critical of the government for not implementing the competition rules in order to open the chapter on competition policy. Altan’s criticism prompted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to tell Turkey’s chief EU negotiator, Egemen Bağış, to call Altan to talk about the matter.

Answering our questions, Altan elaborated on the issue.

Were you satisfied with the minister’s explanations?

I wasn’t satisfied. In Turkey, politics is based on financial interests. If the government implements competition rules, it has to use its funds more wisely than it does now; for example, it needs to spend more on research and development. The main problem in Turkey is that people do not want standards, rules, principles and transparency. There is a political rhetoric that seems to imply we don’t want to be a member of the European Union because of nationalistic reasons; however, individual and social interests have been ignored in that rhetoric as politicians’ own interests come to the fore. We also have to consider the influence of some lobbies, like the steel and iron industry. You can use two different arguments: You can either say Europe wants to kill our own steel and iron industry or you can say our steel and iron industry does not desire competition. What is clear is that the people who are governed do not face losses but gains as a result of the implementation of EU reforms.

Would you give us an example?

Prior to bringing some of the EU’s judicial standards to Turkey, our judiciary was reducing the punishments for the perpetrators of murders committed to protect family honor. This crooked mentality was corrected as a result of harmonization laws adopted in line with the EU’s requirements.

You have been increasingly critical of officials’ language in regards to EU membership.

The language used by government officials is not the language of a state that is in negotiations. This language is nationalist and political, and it is not technical at all. It is as if Turkey is speaking with an adversary. This doesn’t seem to be a relationship between two sides who are engaged to be married. This is saddening because if there is no EU membership, Turkey’s plane will come down.

Why do you think this? Can Turkey not realize reforms without an EU membership goal?

When there is no concrete base to propel Turkey forward, it will be quite hard to proceed in the direction of reforms. As long as politicians think that they can afford to, they will probably evade adopting EU standards. In addition, the perception that the EU is not so willing to take Turkey in has been increasing recently. There is too much indifference on both sides. However, the important thing is not whether or not the EU wants Turkey’s membership. What is important is whether or not Turkey makes reforms in line with the EU’s standards. Turkey should be increasing its people’s living standards. When those standards have been met, the EU will automatically take Turkey in.

‘Politicians treated like sultans in Turkey’

Among many writers and journalists who used to support Turkey’s EU membership, you are among the few who is still supporting it. Why do you think this is?

Because our intellectuals haven’t been thinking independently about politics as presented by politicians. The political institution determines the agenda of the day. And that agenda is not usually full of issues regarding how individuals’ living standards can be improved. On the contrary, EU standards take heed of individuals and society, and society directs where politicians will go in accordance with those standards, not vice versa. The utmost concern in our society is how to obtain access to the palace, not to talk about the problems of individuals like mine workers. EU progress reports on Turkey should concern more people, but unfortunately people are in a search of a shortcut to get into a higher class.

‘Sledgehammer [Balyoz] case 2010’s most important development’

“An alleged coup attempt has made it to trial for the first time in Turkey. It’s a new development for Turkey, but in Greece the chief of general staff was removed just because of one political statement. In Argentina, a junta general was given a prison sentence. However, Turkey is still living in a military regime. If EU standards had been implemented, Turkey would get rid of that tutelage system. The military judiciary and legislation need to undergo a profound overhaul in order to not allow Turkey to face another coup in the future.”

‘How can a trial last 10 years?’

“When a trial lasts 10 years that means that the justice system is bankrupt. The number of judges and prosecutors in Turkey is 7,081 and 4,040, respectively. The deficiency for both professions is close to 4,000! The percentage of the budget allocated to the Ministry of Justice has been only recently increased to 1.4 percent of the entire budget, or 500 million euros. It is 9 billion euros in Germany, and 800 million euros in the Netherlands, where the population is only 16 million. In Germany, the number of judges per 100,000 people is 24.5. In Turkey, the number of judges for the same amount of people is nine. The figure is almost 15 in Belgium, which has a population of 10 million.”

There are so many national newspapers in Turkey and local papers are not given much importance. This is the opposite of the situation in developed democracies where individuals are valued much more.

This is right. In addition, there is not a developed democracy where newspapers have such a small circulation. Newspapers are not read in Turkey because they do not touch on people’s lives. They carry the agenda of politicians. Local papers are important where people are considered important. In Turkey, a politician is treated as if he is a sultan. Whoever treats politicians like this doesn’t see himself or herself as an important citizen. We have to change this relationship.

You call for “destroying the palace,” which is also the title of your latest book.

Yes, I do because there are important developments and changes in Turkey. Despite those changes, the main skeleton which keeps the current political system intact does not change. For example, we closed the year 2010 with a statement from the National Security Council [MGK]. Hundreds of politicians have come and left in many years in Turkey but nobody was able to touch the National Security Council. Instead of considering MGK memorandums out of place, we make comments on them as if they are regular documents that come out. Turkey lives so comfortably with the National Security Council, which would be considered a strange institution in a democratic country. It is an institution that undermines the credibility of Parliament and humiliates it, but Parliament is not interested in this aspect.

‘Divisions over religion, ethnicity, race create enemies’

As the MGK issued a statement saying the debate on bilingualism is a threat, President Abdullah Gül started a visit to Diyarbakır. How do you interpret that?

There are two presidents. One is the head of state, Abdullah Gül, who signed this statement, and the other one is politician Abdullah Gül who made a nice gesture by not staying in the military officers’ club in Diyarbakır. Which one is the real Abdullah Gül? It was so positive that he had talks with the Diyarbakır mayor, but his visit was accompanied by military jets -- a symbolically meaningful act for a region like Diyarbakır. It’s been a positive visit to smoothen the harsh political environment. However, the main structure that blocks the way toward individual freedoms should be eliminated instead of repeating nice gestures. Be it the headscarf issue, Alevis’ problems, Kurds’ problems or lifestyles that Kemalists stress, they can all be addressed by establishing standards based on individual rights and freedoms. On the contrary, politicians produce politics that do not promise relief for problems by using that principle; instead, they use religion, ethnicity and race. This approach creates more problems and enemies.

You emphasize vision in politics and talk about Turkey’s place in regards to world standards rather than talking about achievements made inside Turkey. Do you see a visionary leader who can do that?

I don’t. We’ve seen Turgut Özal on television talking about how improving foreign trade would help Turkey’s development. Nobody would think that Turkish people would understand that, but indeed they did. As long as Turkish leaders do not have even a brief discussion about the newly invented quantum device in their conversations, we cannot expect that they will exhibit leadership in the implementation of new technological innovations.

‘Sept. 12 coup regime should end’

Do you think the new leader of the Republican People’s Party [CHP], Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, will be able to exhibit the leadership that is expected of him?

He has some good points. But does he have a principled, consistent approach to changing the system? I doubt it. The CHP’s space for making this type of a turn is already limited. We need to be critical of Kılıçdaroğlu’s deficiencies and support his moves if he has the intention of making a difference. Unfortunately, our public doesn’t have a principled approach in that regard and chooses to side with one political party or its leader rather than having its own ideas and demands in line with democratic standards. When this is the case, the other party and its leader become the enemy. Supporters of the ruling party fall into the same trap and aren’t critical enough of the government. For example, the law on the Court of Accounts, which has not been passed for a long time, was supposed to bring transparency with regards to where taxes collected from citizens would go. [Justice and Development Party] AK Party group deputies prevented the public inspection of military spending by presenting a motion saying that a secret commission should carry out that inspection. If you reconcile with the military when it comes to one of the most important issues in the EU harmonization laws, the tax inspection issue, then how it is going to be possible to solve the Kurdish issue and make a new constitution.

Mehmet Altan

Currently a professor of economics at İstanbul University’s School of Economics, he is also the chief columnist for the Star daily. After graduating from high school in İstanbul, he went to France in 1979 for post-graduate studies. He has also worked as a correspondent for various newspapers. He returned Turkey in 1984 and later developed the concept of the “Second Republic” in 1991 in order to emphasize the need for more democratization in Turkey. He has become the target of much criticism and threats because of his ideas. Recently, the indictment on the Sledgehammer case has revealed that the Sledgehammer plotters allegedly planned in 2003 to assassinate him. Altan filed a criminal complaint against the team of alleged assailants last year. His most recent book is titled “Let’s Destroy the Palace: An Unchanging and Changing Turkey.”

This is what I was coming to. Do you think that is going to be possible?

In order to do that, the regime of the Sept. 12 coup should end. For example, [the Higher Education Board] YÖK is an institution established as a result of the military regime and YÖK militarized universities. How is it going to be possible to change the coup regime without eliminating YÖK? The system of military tutelage is still there. The government should be engaged in making the new constitution before the elections and present a public draft so as not to lose its persuasiveness. I remember very well that the public expected a draft of a new constitution before the 2007 elections, but it did not happen.

Who will rule vs. how the country will be ruled

A new survey conducted by the MetroPOLL [Strategic and Social Research Center between from Dec. 25-29] revealed that a clear majority of people support Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, as more than 53 percent said they would vote “yes” if a referendum were held today about Turkey’s aspirations to become a full member of the 27-nation bloc. And 44 percent of CHP and 69 percent of AK Party supporters said “yes” to the EU.

The majority of people are aware of the benefits of Turkey’s inclusion in the EU. People know they will reap the benefits from EU membership. Thanks to harmonization laws with the EU, the brake systems on school buses have been upgraded. Could we not have done that without the EU even though our children are our biggest priority? Unfortunately, our politics have been inconsiderate of individuals; the sole topic has been who will rule. But what is important is how the country will be ruled. The most important reason for this is that individuals do not see themselves as important, as valued members of society, because most people do not have vocations, they don’t produce. Out of 23 million people in the workforce, 10 million of them are unregistered and 60 percent of them do not have a professional occupation. We still have 12 million people who are destitute -- this figure was 18 million at the beginning of AK Party rule.

Figures also show that Turkey’s GDP has increased to TL 1 trillion.

It is a success for Turkey, but this is not a matter to be proud of in comparison to the world’s healthy democracies. We still have a long way to go. There should be comparisons with the European economies, their production and per capita income, to comprehend where we stand.

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