17 April 2014, Thursday
Today's Zaman

Turkey’s chief EU negotiator and the AK Party government’s fate

10 October 2008, Friday /
A number of items occupy the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government’s foreign policy agenda.

Not least among these is Turkey’s European Union membership and eradicating the never-ending terrorism perpetrated by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

As part of this fight, Turkey must monitor the Kurdish formation in northern Iraq, coordinate efforts with countries neighboring Iraq and the major parties involved to ensure the country’s territorial integrity and counter the shift in the regional balance of power likely to be caused by a nuclear Iran.

Turkey must also focus on maintaining the success of the Caucasus Stability Platform as well as normalize relations with Armenia in parallel to Armenia’s withdrawal from Azerbaijani territories it has occupied and to its cooperation in bringing about a reasonable end to the so-called genocide allegations.

Additionally, rendering a sustainable solution to the Cyprus issue, mediating indirect or possibly direct talks between Syria and Israel, contributing to the infrastructural development of Palestine, assisting the rapprochement between Pakistan and Afghanistan while contributing to the post-conflict rehabilitation and development of the latter and contributing to the global war on terror are priority issues.

Furthermore, assisting the maintenance of peace and stability in the Balkans in general and Kosovo’s survival as a sovereign state in particular as well as revitalizing Turkey’s long-ignored relations with the African countries, minimizing Turkey’s energy dependency and possibly ensuring its energy independence via developing a civilian nuclear program and securing a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for 2009-2010 rank high in importance.

Finally, maintaining friendly relations with the US and preparing for the post-American Middle East must also be addressed by the AK Party.

While they are all critical on their own, the consistency and success in the pursuit of the first item on the agenda is pretty much decisive on Ankara’s ability to consistently and successfully pursue the rest. Yet, the consistent and successful pursuit of Turkey’s EU membership depends on the political stability of the AK Party government.

As Parliament begins its new legislative year, the AK Party leadership is preparing to undertake a major reshuffling of the Cabinet. In addition to its relatively successful foreign policy and sustained economic growth for several years in a row, the AK Party leadership proved successful in reshuffling the Cabinet at the start of its second term in office, reducing the number of former Islamist Welfare Party (RP) members in it and replacing them with social democrats. These days, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is preparing to do the same with one difference: He is planning to appoint a “chief EU negotiator.”

A critical decision

Certainly one of the critical decisions the prime minister has to make is choosing who is to lead Turkey’s negotiations with the European Union. The position has so far been held by Foreign Minister Babacan because acquiring EU membership has long been the main pillar of Turkish foreign policy. However, lately, probably as a result Turkey’s increased involvement in regional and international affairs, it appears the government believes that the responsibility for EU negotiations should be taken off the foreign minister’s shoulders to ease his burden.

Some would argue that creating a separate “chief EU negotiator” position is just a cunning attempt to train a potential contender to the AK Party leadership. In a way, Erdoğan by himself will bring about his and his government’s own end, depending on who is chosen to be the prospective chief. After all, given the importance Turkish foreign policy attaches to full EU membership and the public’s increasing involvement in debates regarding the EU accession process, there is no doubt that the prospective chief EU negotiator will be one of the most popular political figures and a person who will make headlines every day. He may well be the most popular person -- depending on the dominant media groups’ tendency to promote him as a potential contender to Erdoğan’s political leadership either within or without the AK Party. As such, depending on who he is, the prospective chief EU negotiator may well be manipulated to clash with the prime minister as his popularity grows. It goes without saying that a political figure that clashes with the prime minister would certainly fail, if not purposefully resist, to work with the country’s foreign minister and seek to exclude the latter by all means from deliberations and decisions regarding Turkey’s EU accession.

A recent row between Prime Minister Erdoğan and media mogul Aydın Doğan, who owns more than 50 percent of the Turkish media as well as a substantial part of the country’s banking and energy sector, guarantees gigantic media and capital support for any possible contender to Erdoğan.

Last month Turks witnessed a fierce row between Erdoğan and Doğan, a row that allegedly erupted when newspapers and TV stations owned by the Doğan Media Group (DMG), in what seemed to be a concerted effort, argued that Erdoğan was involved in a major corruption scandal. According to an article published by the Turkish Daily News, a Doğan Media Group newspaper, the German prosecutor’s indictment -- part of a court case against the Germany-based charity organization Lighthouse e.V., accused of embezzling some 42 million euros worth of donations -- included evidence of one of the suspects saying that he had received an unspecified amount of money to be given to Prime Minister Erdoğan.

Although this allegation has been disputed by the German prosecutor, while the trial was pending major DMG newspapers, such as Hürriyet and Milliyet, headlined with the allegation as if it was already a proven fact, which in turn led to Erdoğan arguing that it was merely a smear campaign against him and his government because he did not respond to multi-billion dollar favors Doğan had asked of him earlier.

Given the DMG’s previous record on matters concerning the AK Party, argues columnist Bülent Keneş, what seemed like a personal clash between Doğan and Erdoğan has deeper roots in the inherent power struggle between a secularist minority and a democratic majority of Turkey. Keneş notes “… the Doğan group lent support to all anti-democratic campaigns and even to an absurd claim concerning a quorum of 367 deputies in the presidential election. [Doğan Media Group] newspapers and TV stations engaged in provocative and antidemocratic publications and broadcasting during the presidential election. They supported the military memorandum of April 27. They lent support to the republican rallies, which called on the army to overthrow the government. But they failed to prevent Abdullah Gül from being elected president. Still they did not give in. The headline ‘411 hands raised to chaos,’ which the Hürriyet newspaper ran after Parliament passed constitutional amendments lifting the headscarf ban at universities, will never be forgotten by Erdoğan, just like a majority of the nation. All these things have accumulated and have eventually caused Erdoğan to burst...” Given the personal and ideological stakes involved in the infamous power struggle, whether it is a chief EU negotiator, ranking member of the AK Party, or even a close aide to Erdoğan, whoever possesses leadership aspirations within or without the AK Party will be a perfect candidate to be manipulated against Erdoğan.

Chief EU negotiator: surrogate foreign minister to replace prime minister?

Unlike any other political position within the government, the chief EU negotiator position provides such a contender with a unique opportunity to show himself off and garner popular support for his future campaign for leadership. After all, he will be negotiating for a prize that has long been the only common goal which could bring together the otherwise differing segments of Turkish society, be they secularists, seculars, moderates, conservatives, nationalists, liberals, etc. If the negotiations with the EU go well, as intended and expected, it is not the prime minister or the foreign minister who will be given credit for the success, but the chief EU negotiator. It will be more so if the prospective chief is bent on taking the credit himself instead of giving it to the entire Foreign Ministry or the government. In that regard, he will be much easier to manipulate than not.

Moreover, given the relative importance of the EU membership vis-à-vis the other items on Turkey’s foreign policy agenda, institutionalizing the pursuit of the EU accession negotiations under the supervision of a chief EU negotiator would naturally entail staffing and/or re-staffing within the relevant units in line with the preferences of the chief negotiator, which may pave the road to further cronyism in the Foreign Ministry. In addition, there is also a possibility of a constant conflict between the chief EU negotiator and the foreign minister on issues regarding, but not limited to, Turkey’s policies directly or indirectly related to the EU accession process. The prospects for such a conflict increase if the prospective chief is someone who has so far directly reported to and developed a personal relationship with the prime minister.

At least as important as what he should not be is what the chief EU negotiator should be. The ideal candidate for the job should have a keen understanding of not only EU-Turkey relations but also a wide range of issues -- from US-Turkish relations to Turkey’s evolving foreign policy toward the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular, Central Asia and the Caucasus, and the major regional powers, such as Russia and Iran. Moreover, he should be able write on these issues and speak to a foreign audience knowing what he is talking about. In order to do that, he should come from an academic and professional background in international relations, be acquainted with Western media and think tank circles, have experience in publishing op-ed articles in major Western media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times and the like. All this is necessary for the chief to successfully negotiate Turkey’s EU membership.

These days, two names are being tossed around to be considered for the position: one is Egemen Bağış, deputy chairman of the AK Party for external affairs; the other is Lütfi Elvan, a deputy for Karaman who served as deputy undersecretary in the State Planning Organization (DPT). If the AK Party leadership is incapable of seeing that there are candidates in the party much better suited for the job than these two, it should at least realize that the candidate who has allegedly been claiming to have been the “shadow foreign minister” of Turkey, should be the last person to be considered for the chief EU negotiator position.

*Mehmet Kalyoncu is an international relations analyst and author of the book titled “A Civilian Response to Ethno-Religious Conflict: The Gülen Movement in Southeast Turkey.” He can be reached at [email protected]


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