Ankara Turns Its Gaze back toward Brussels

The elections are over, realpolitik is back. After emerging victorious from the parliamentary elections, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will once again be turning his attention to European politics, predicts Susanne Güsten

This time around, Erdogan will not be quite as driven by EU euphoria – a feeling that has subsided over the past years for the Premier and many of his countrymen. Europe is important for Erdogan above all as a source of fresh momentum for economic, social and democratic reforms in his country.

The Minister President wants to double his citizens' per capita income to 10,000 dollars a year in the coming years and bring the standard of living in Turkey up to the level of a modern industrialized nation. The model Turkey is trying to measure up to is still the same as always: Europe.

Ankara criteria, Istanbul criteria

Nevertheless, the strategic orientation toward Europe in the new Turkish legislative period should not be equated with an unconditional striving for EU membership.

If the Europeans should shut the door in the Turks' face, then the government will declare that the – political – Copenhagen Criteria are "Ankara Criteria" and the – economic – Maastricht Criteria are "Istanbul Criteria." As Erdogan has proclaimed more than once: "We will continue to follow our own path."

This spring, Erdogan's government already presented a reform program designed to help Turkey elevate itself to EU level within the next seven years. The program deals less with what may seem like major issues from the European point of view, such as Cyprus, human rights or freedom of opinion, and instead focuses on improvements in everyday life in Turkey.

Planned reforms range from energy-saving measures, to better consumer protection and food hygiene, all the way to protecting children against violence.

This emphasis on the practical consequences of Europe-oriented policy reform made it possible for Erdogan's AK Party to advocate Europe as a goal during the election campaign, despite widespread EU skepticism. Support for the goal of EU membership has dropped to about 50 percent in Turkey, meaning that the AK Party had to treat this topic gingerly.

The electorate's blessing to Erdogan's course

However, unlike the other parties that openly displayed a Europe-friendly attitude, Erdogan pointed out how Turkey itself would benefit from adopting European policies. Nearly 47 percent of Turkish voters gave their blessing to Erdogan's course in the parliamentary elections on July 22 by voting for the AK Party.

Already on election night, Erdogan promised a continuation of his reform policies, which have brought him a good deal of recognition in Brussels during the past few years. While the EU looks critically on the flagging reform momentum of late, the European politicians, themselves familiar with the struggle to stay in office, do show a certain understanding of the need for tactical election considerations.

Turks and Europeans have thus begun again, discreetly and without much ado, to resume contact. There are even rustlings between Turkey and France, where Turkey skeptic Nicolas Sarkozy has been in power since May. Erdogan and Sarkozy have spoken on the phone several times and would like to meet in person soon.

Even before the EU Summit in December, at which Sarkozy plans to address Turkey's EU candidacy, Erdogan is expected in Paris for talks.

But France is not the only stumbling block for the Turks on the way to the EU. Due to the ongoing conflict with Cyprus, the Turkish accession talks have been put on ice since last winter. Turkey still refuses to open its harbors to ships from the Greek republic of Cyprus, an EU member state, as long as the EU does not loosen its trade embargo against the Turkish part of the island.

New proposals for the Cyprus conflict

And there is another battle brewing: The Greek Cypriots want to search for oil in the waters surrounding the island, which in the view of the Turks requires the agreement of the Turkish Cypriots.

European diplomats in Ankara have let it be known that Erdogan's government is working behind closed doors on new proposals to at least defuse the Cyprus conflict somewhat. More is probably not possible in the short term.

A fresh start to finding a comprehensive resolution for the conflict, which began in 1974 with a Greek putsch in Nikosia followed by Turkish military intervention, can be expected at the earliest after the parliamentary and presidential elections in the Greek part of the island this coming spring.

The Turkish government's several options

In the Cyprus conflict as in other sore spots in their European candidacy, it is important for Turkey to show good will as soon as possible. A new EU progress report on Turkey is due this fall, which will serve Brussels as the foundation for further assessment of the Turkish candidacy. The new Erdogan government has several options to choose from if it wants to collect some points in time for the report.

It could for example abolish or at least amend Paragraph 301 of the country's criminal law statute – sharply censured by the EU – which makes it punishable by law to "denigrate Turkishness."

The debate on a new constitution for Turkey launched in Ankara after the elections could also benefit Turkey's EU aspirations. Erdogan's government would like to replace the current constitution, which dates from the last military putsch in 1980, with a "civil" system of law. The army and political reform opponents will of course put up resistance – and this is where Erdogan can really use Europe's support.

Susanne Güsten

© 2007

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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