Time for Europe to reciprocate Turkey’s overtures

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Time for Europe to reciprocate Turkey’s overtures

Turkey has given signals that it is again turning to its EU agenda, but it is unclear whether this is a momentary reaction to US President Donald Trump’s rebuffs. Ankara may simply have wished to demonstrate to Washington that it has other options.

Whatever the reason, last week, four ministers — foreign, interior, justice and finance — held a meeting of the Reform Action Group and reiterated their resolve to work out a long overdue strategy for judicial reform, which would include accelerating the course of legal actions, re-activating the conciliation procedures, and increasing the number of courts of second instance. But these targets fall short, by far, of what the EU is expecting from Turkey.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu expressed his wish to work more closely with the Council of Europe, where he served as President of the Parliamentary Assembly. As for relations with the EU, he said that, regardless of whether Turkey will ultimately be admitted or not, reforms have always been the priority of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

This is in line with the view of a strong portion of the Turkish people, who believe that, rather than getting entangled in the process of becoming a member of the EU, the government should utilize the accession process as an opportunity to improve the living standards of its people and make Turkey a country with a better democracy with more widespread fundamental rights and freedoms, and a more transparent market economy. If Turkey achieves this, it will become irrelevant whether it joins the EU or not. 

This approach was also confirmed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, when he said in 2003: “We will do our best to fulfill the EU Copenhagen political criteria and Maastricht economic criteria. If the EU admits Turkey after this, so much the better. If not, we will call them Ankara criteria and continue our way.” Cavusoglu became the second high-level figure after Erdogan to spell out this position, after 15 years of silence. 

Other instructions given by the ministers to their bureaucrats include the immediate resumption of cooperation with the EU institutions, the establishment of working groups to fulfill the EU criteria, orders to follow closely the sensitivities developing in EU countries about Turkey, and cooperation with the EU in the fight against terror. In other words, Turkey wants to demonstrate that it will not become the party that throws in the towel.

During the meeting of the Reform Action Group, Finance Minister Berat Al-Bayrak praised at length the atmosphere of solidarity that dominated his talks with his French counterpart, Bruno Le Maire. But the irony is that French President Emmanuel Macron, one day before the Reform Action Group meeting, added cold water to the soup by saying that Turkey’s EU accession process should be put aside at once and a new strategic partnership negotiated. “We cannot genuinely continue accession negotiations with Turkey while President Erdogan reaffirms every day a pan-Islamic project that goes against our European values. Erdogan’s Turkey is not any longer (founding father Mustafa) Kemal’s Turkey,” he said.

New countries may join France and Austria in opposing Turkey’s entry to the EU if Ankara cannot prove that it genuinely shares the bloc’s universal values. 

The EU noticed during various stages of the Syrian crisis that Turkey can contribute to the solution of some of its problems

Yasar Yakis

Another message that came out of the Reform Action Group is that Ankara is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of the structural reforms in solving Turkey’s major problems. Every minister made reference to it one way or another, but without spelling out more specific details. 

The next day, Cavusoglu flew to Vienna for the Gymnich meeting — an informal gathering of the EU’s foreign ministers. Several months ago, Turkey announced it would ignore the EU presidency during the Austrian term, in the second half of 2018, because of the harsh rhetoric that Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had used against its accession bid. Despite this, Cavusoglu did not refuse the invitation to participate in the Gymnich meeting, where there is no agenda and the foreign ministers participate without their advisers. This was exactly what Turkey needed at the present juncture, because there was no consensus on what to negotiate with Ankara. 

The EU noticed during various stages of the Syrian crisis that Turkey can contribute to the solution of some of its problems. This happened at a time when Turkey-EU relations had hit rock-bottom. A new start may be appropriate, but there are several constraints: Strong French and Austrian opposition to Turkey’s membership being the most important.

Some modest improvements may be expected from Turkey’s return to the EU agenda, as long as the mountain does not give birth to a mouse and the EU decides to reciprocate Turkey’s overtures. 

  • Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar
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