A Lack of Perspective

After a break of many months, the EU has resumed membership talks with Turkey and extended them to address a further issue. But despite the new momentum for negotiations, the erstwhile euphoria over Europe on the Bosphorus has long dissipated. Senada Sokollu reports from Istanbul

By Senada Sokollu

The European Union has resumed membership talks with Turkey after a break of many months. The Turkish Minister for EU Affairs Egemen Bagis acknowledged the official opening of a new chapter of negotiations in his nation's accession process – the 14th of a total of 35 – as a "turning point in relations between the EU and Turkey after a break of 40 months".

Germany had initially blocked further talks in response to the brutal crackdown by Turkish security forces against demonstrators in Istanbul's Gezi Park last June. But then EU foreign ministers considered the latest progress report by the EU Commission on Turkey to show sufficient advances in democracy and human rights.

The EU was first and foremost happy about Ankara's new "democracy package" and praised reforms by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. The package contains, among other things, a relaxing of the headscarf ban as well as greater rights for minorities. The EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Stefan Füle, assessed both as indications of progress.

"Absurd political blockades"

This is the first time the EU is opening a new chapter in negotiations since June 2010. The 14th chapter covers the issue of regional policy. But there is little scope to begin talks on other issues: Currently, the only chapters available for further negotiations are those for example on competition and social policy. All other subject areas are blocked for time being. EU foreign ministers have together put a total of eight important chapters on ice, because Turkey is not applying its associate agreement with the EU to Cyprus.

Der türkische Ministerpräsident Erdogan auf dem Weltwirtschaftsforum; Foto: Reuters
Zaghafte Fortschritte: Die EU-Kommission hatte in den vergangenen Jahren immer wieder mehr Demokratie als eine Voraussetzung für einen EU-Beitritt der Türkei gefordert. Erdogan habe hinsichtlich des Gebrauchs anderer Sprachen, der Religionsfreiheit, der Versammlungsfreiheit, des Wahlrechts und der möglichen staatlichen Parteienfinanzierung Hoffnungen auf Veränderungen geweckt.

"We hope that these absurd political blockades of other chapters will be removed as soon as possible," said Bagis in late October. Erdogan also advised greater haste: "Further steps need to be taken more quickly. We've already lost a lot of time."

Turkey has been an official candidate for EU accession since 2005. But within Turkey itself, interest in Europe appears to be flagging. In the year 2004, three in every four of those polled were in favour. Now a third of Turks say they are against Turkey joining the EU, while nine years ago just 9 percent were against it.

"I can understand people: We've not even opened half the negotiation chapters, there's no clear date for our accession and Turkish citizens still face huge problems getting a visa for Germany," Turkey's Minister for Europe Bagis said in a recent interview.

Bagis continued by saying that in such circumstances, it is nigh on a miracle that many Turks still support the nation's accession to the EU. "However, only 25 percent of the population believes that we actually are joining the European Union," he said.

Economic experts in favour of EU membership

From an economic point of view first and foremost, the need for good relations between Turkey and the EU becomes evident. To this end Muherrem Yilmaz, the Chairman of the Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association (TÜSIAD), believes Turkey must reinvigorate its efforts if it wants economic growth, stability and democratization.

"From an economic point of view, Turkey needs the EU," says the economist and business reporter Mustafa Sönmez in conversation with Qantara. "It's important to be an EU member or EU accession candidate when it's a matter of foreign investment," he says. Sönmez believes that Ankara's overtures to the EU are alone enough to attract investors from abroad.

Turkey is also trying to win investors from other parts of the world, for example from the Middle East. As a Muslim nation, this affords Turkey great potential here. The expansion of the Islamic banking system in Turkey is evidence of this. Its current share of the Turkish banking sector is around five percent. This is too little to exert any significant influence on the economic situation in Turkey. The Turkish market requires investments from varying parts of the world. This is where the EU comes in. "There aren't any other brilliant alternatives," says Sönmez.

A motor for the democratization process

Political scientist Senem Aydin perceives the EU as the motor driving the nation's democratization process. "Above all it has become evident over the past five years that without the influence of the EU, Turkish democracy would have suffered setbacks. That's why it's a scandal that the EU accession negotiations have been delayed to such an extent," says Aydin.

Emre Gönen, Soziologe und Politikwissenschaftler am europäischen Institut der Bilgi-Universität in Istanbul; Foto: Senada Sokollu
„Entweder wird man Mitglied oder eben nicht. Norwegen beispielsweise ist mit jeder Faser in der EU integriert, wollte aber nie EU-Mitglied werden. Das ist auch eine Option für die Türkei“, meint Emre Gönen, Soziologe und Politikwissenschaftler am europäischen Institut der Bilgi-Universität in Istanbul.

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Turkey needs the EU to evolve and keep focused on a goal, agrees Emre Gönen, a political scientist at Istanbul University's European Institute. "But you can't automatically assume that the EU will also initiate more democratic reforms for Turkey. This equation doesn't add up that easily. You have to fight for democracy in every area of life," says Gönen.

And in addition, the EU doesn't have anything else to offer but membership, says the political scientist. "Either you become a member, or you don't. Norway, for example, is wholly integrated within the EU but didn't want to become a member. That's also an option for Turkey," says so Gönen.

Turkey's Europe Minister Egemen Bagis is also not ruling out this possibility: "In the long-term, Turkey may well follow the example of Norway. We would meet the European standards but never become a member."

Senada Sokollu

© Qantara.de 2013

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de