Recent years have seen major change in both Turkey and the EU. Turkey’s economy and global political importance have grown, while the EU has experienced economic, political and social crises in the last few years, said Afif Demirkiran, a member of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey.
Demirkiran said the crisis had strained relations between member states and the EU institutions, leading some to question the merits of EU membership. Although the situation remains problematic, the AKP believes the EU has the experience and capacity to overcome the crisis, he added. He said that since the creation of the Single Market in 1992, the EU had a strong economic imperative to hold together. Whatever the EU’s future, the AKP believes Turkish membership would strengthen the European Union, he added.
Admitting that EU-Turkey relations were going through a rough patch, Demirkiran said Turkey had made some 2,000 reforms in recent years to prepare for EU accession. Despite this, no new negotiating chapters were opened during the last five EU presidencies and others remained frozen – all for political reasons, he complained. Demirkiran said that only 13 out of a total of 25 chapters had been opened. He added that just one had been provisionally closed, and a further three chapters had not been blocked – the other 17 were suspended due to the Cyprus issue. Of those 17, he said some had been suspended by the Council as a whole, while others were being blocked by France or Cyprus. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy had blocked a number of chapters that were essential to the integration process, he said, expressing hope that at least one of these would be opened by new President François Hollande.
Lamenting the unfairness of the situation, Demirkiran said Turkey had nevertheless accepted the European Commission’s ‘Positive Agenda’, which he argued was not an alternative to full EU membership, but rather designed to support it. Thanks to the Commission, meetings are at least being held on some issues, including energy policy – the Positive Agenda is a method to support the accession negotiations, not an alternative to them, he repeated. Demirkiran urged Turkey and all its EU partners to come together and lift the embargo, and complained that the accession process had been politicized. The EU accession chapters are pre-determined and the process is supposed to be technical, he protested.
As a result of this politicization, the process suffers from a lack of credibility in Turkey, where 92% of the population thinks the EU is demonstrating double standards. Public support for accession has therefore fallen over time, the AKP politician said. Demirkiran insisted that with some effort, public opinion could be turned around, but warned that the Turkish public no longer took the progress reports issued by the European Commission and the European Parliament very seriously, because they were skeptical as to whether some EU countries’ attitudes would ever change.
He claimed that some EU member states considered Turkey to be too big, too poor and too Muslim to join the EU. Calling for this to change, he said Turkey was Europe’s sixth largest economy and was fast developing a competitive business environment, a skilled workforce, a stronger democracy and a more active foreign policy. The EU, meanwhile, was facing one of its greatest challenges and would benefit greatly from Turkey’s strength, Demirkiran argued. He said that Turkey was of huge geostrategic importance and was setting an example for unfolding events in the region.
The AKP member argued that Turkey could help the EU to become a global ambassador for peace. Despite the crisis, Europe remains the most developed democratic region in the world and has one of its highest per capita GDPs, he stressed. Turkish exports to the EU are enormous, while huge foreign direct investment flows into Turkey from the EU, Demirkiran said.
Despite all the shortcomings and double standards in the EU-Turkey relationship, he said Turkey was determined to continue the accession process, because EU principles would benefit all Turks – and Turkish citizens deserved them just as much as their EU counterparts. He called on prominent politicians and opinion leaders to help overcome common misconceptions about Turkey, lamenting the fact that it was easy for politicians with one eye on the next election to jump on the anti-Turkey bandwagon.
Demirkiran singled out visa liberalization as the most important issue in Turkey-EU relations going forward. He argued that it was not morally right to subject Turkish businessmen, academics, students and artists to visa restrictions in order to enter the EU, when their European counterparts could travel visa-free to Turkey.
He complained that Turkish goods could be sent freely to EU trade fairs, but not the businessmen who had made them – and claimed that Greek businessmen on Greek islands would like the EU to ease its visa restrictions to allow Turks to be able to shop there. He said the European Court of Justice had ruled that some of the visa restrictions imposed on Turks by EU countries were not even legal. He acknowledged that the European Commission had begun to up the pressure regarding visas, but only on the condition that Turkey signs a readmission agreement first. Implementing a readmission agreement would not come without costs for Turkey, but with the EU’s help, he expressed hope that the two sides would cooperate and move forward together on both readmission and visa liberalization.
Demirkiran concluded by arguing that the EU was facing a choice of two paths: towards a globally-competitive, influential and outward-looking EU, or towards a Union that was closed and uncompetitive. Turkey’s membership of the European Union is a precondition of the first path, he insisted, expressing his country’s determination to continue along the road to accession. If the EU wants to honor the commitment it made when it opened accession talks, then it must lift all blockages – and Turkey expects it to do so, he said.
Turkey-EU relations have a long and complex history, but are mostly characterized by the two sides constantly criticizing each other about the same things, rather than attempting to find mutual solutions, said Faik Tunay, a member of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey.
He said the Kurdish issue was of crucial importance and lamented that there was not even any consensus in Turkey over how to conceptualize it – some would describe it as a terrorism issue, while others see it as a human rights, political, or security one. EU-Turkey relations are the same – there are a lot of descriptions but no consensus, he said. Some see it as single-sided relationship, and claim that the EU is neither sincere nor fair to Turkey, and will never accept it as a member. Others accuse the Turkish government of failing to do its homework and complain that Turkey is not democratic enough, he explained.
Rather than wasting time talking about these issues for another 20 years, Tunay declared that now was the time to abandon old prejudices, open a dialogue and finally work together to solve the problems. He said that some people in Europe appeared to be scared of ‘different’ Turkey, and suggested that it was perhaps Islam which they were scared of. But differences should not be feared or present obstacles – they should be seen as a source of richness, he argued.
Tunay expressed his general belief that his European colleagues were not being sincere to Turkey, alleging that they would say one thing behind closed doors, and quite another in public. Despite admitting that both sides had their problems, he said the lack of sincerity towards Turkey from Europe had led pessimism towards the EU to increase among the Turkish people – which had produced a corresponding fall in their support for EU membership.
Turkey is seen by many countries as a Mediterranean geostrategic partner, and all the more so since the Arab Spring. But given that accession negotiations have been opened, those countries ought to want Turkey as an EU member, he argued. He lamented that anti-Turkish voices in the EU seemed to be heard loudest, and said this must change immediately.
Tunay admitted that Turks’ lack of self-criticism over democratic standards, human rights and the Kurdish issue had not helped matters, but urged the EU to help Turkey to overcome these obstacles. Turkey’s new constitution will play an essential role in safeguarding democracy and moving the country closer to the EU, but it will be impossible for every political party to reach 100% agreement on its content – so if a majority say ‘yes’, it should be adopted, he argued.
He insisted that the majority of Turks wanted a new constitution, without a guardianship role for the army. He claimed that the Turkish people loved their army, but wanted it to remain in the barracks and leave politics to politicians.
Tunay argued that both sides needed each other, and that neither Turkey nor the EU could afford to neglect one another. Europe’s borders have always been vaguely defined, and its edges have always been considered as its periphery: although some people may be afraid of Turkey, the country would boost the diversity of the EU tremendously, he said. Turks who have migrated to Europe have a responsibility because the nation is mirrored in them, argued Tunay, urging the diaspora to get educated and assume powerful positions in European business and social circles.
He concluded by insisting that Turkish civil society was gradually growing stronger, and urged opposition parties and the EU institutions to do more to strengthen it, given its essential role in spreading knowledge of the EU to every corner of Turkey.
Nazmi Gür, a member of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, claimed that there was a lack of enthusiasm about enacting reforms and the EU bid among AKP members at the moment.
At first, the AKP and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were very enthusiastic, which was reflected in public opinion too. But that enthusiasm is no longer there, and the reform process has stalled or even regressed, Gür claimed.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s self-confidence has grown and it is less concerned with the EU issue. But freedom of expression has also regressed, he added. Gür said the EU was about more than just an economic union, describing it as a civilizational project involving peoples. Therefore he could not agree that accession was a technical process, and said the EU was a political and emotional union of universal principles that Turkey would have to internalize.
He complained that in Turkey, journalists and other critics of the government were being laid off or even imprisoned. He said political immunity presented problems, and warned that civil society was very weak due to outdated restrictions on freedom to march or gather in public. He said problems linked to freedom of expression and association were not just linked to the Kurdish issue, and complained that hundreds of BDP members were in jail. Turkey must address issues related to fundamental rights and freedoms if it is to join the EU, said Gür, warning that these had unfortunately become a bargaining chip in the negotiations.
He said the BDP was a strong supporter of Turkey’s EU membership bid and was working hard to push through the adoption of legislation in line with the EU acquis. Gür said the Turkish government had criticized the EU’s Progress Reports and had even taken the unprecedented step of coming up with its own. He called on the ruling AK Party to show the political will to accelerate reform, because should they choose to do so, many other parties and NGOs were ready to lend their support.
He claimed that the government’s attempts to excuse the lack of reform progress with the pretexts of the Syria crisis and Cyprus’ blocking the opening of new chapters were unjustified. If the AKP is serious about restarting the EU bid, then it must continue with reforms, he said.
Turkey’s new constitution must do more to promote freedom and democracy, said Gür, arguing that such a constitution would not just benefit the EU bid, but the country itself. Any new constitution must enshrine and protect Kurdish and other minority rights, he stressed.
Gür argued that Turkish people should be able to circulate as freely throughout the EU as Turkish capital. Opening accession negotiations implied that EU had confidence in Turkey – visa liberalization would restore confidence in the EU among Turks, he said. He said the BDP wanted to see a political, non-violent solution to the Kurdish issue, and claimed that the country had been in a state of denial as to the reality of who was living on its soil. Despite progress made, the language issue is a sine qua non – the millions of Kurds in Turkey deserve the right to live, study and work in their own language, he argued.
He called for the establishment of a strong, decentralized local government structure according to EU principles. Insisting that the goal of the BDP was not to redefine Turkey’s borders, he said his party wanted to see a Turkey in which all citizens could live side-by-side. If Turkey wants to grow within its region, then it must strengthen democracy and human rights for all its citizens, he concluded.
Turkey’s EU accession negotiations have been stalled for months now. Much of the blame for this must lie with the EU, due to the Cyprus issue and political reluctance on the part of some to accept Turkey as a member, said Amanda Paul, policy analyst at the European Policy Centre.
Asked to outline the timetable for adopting the new constitution, Afif Demirkiran of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) said the constitution would have to be adopted by referendum, because the Turkish population must be given the chance to take ownership of it. He argued that much progress had been made on Kurdish language rights, but admitted that problems still remained.
Asked to clarify whether he felt the EU or Turkey was at fault for not taking the Progress Reports seriously, Demirkiran said the Progress Reports had to be balanced and driven by the right motives. He insisted that Turkey was willing to be analysed and stood ready to learn, but said that Ankara wanted the reports to be balanced and reflect positive progress made too.
Asked whether Turkey would consider other formats of association with the EU given the controversy over membership, he said that he would not accept anything less than full membership.
Faik Tunay of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), meanwhile, said he would be willing to consider a different model if that was what the EU was suggesting. But he stressed that all the main parties in the Turkish parliament supported full EU membership. Nazmi Gür, a member of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) said that unless either Turkey or the EU formally decided that it no longer wanted Turkey as a member, he would not consider anything less than full membership.
Stressing the need for Turkey to resolve the Kurdish issue, Gür called for talks between imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and Prime Minister Erdoğan to take place on a more democratic footing, and for steps to be taken to prepare the Kurdish population for peace. He insisted that it was possible to resolve the Kurdish issue by peaceful, democratic means.