Friday, October 14, 2011

Turkey and the EU: time for priorities

With the new Progress Report on Turkey, two opposite observations on the state of affairs seem to remain equally valid: a) The prospects for a “marriage” look bleaker than in previous years, mainly due to deliberate and destructive blocking efforts by a couple of EU members' administrations; and b) Turkey is maintaining the momentum and continues to “sufficiently fulfill the criteria” in sync with the rather concerned, but wise, European Commission. Once more, it leaves the main question marks on Turkey's accession hanging. Despite some (unnecessarily) harsh Turkish official comments, the report is fair and balanced. It praises the main steps on passing crucial laws to meet the Copenhagen Criteria, underlines the vital importance of the demilitarization of politics, reiterates high expectations for a new constitution and commends economic policies in general. However, in an equally objective manner, it remains critical of individual freedoms and civil rights, flaws in the implementation of the rule of law (lengthy arrests and slow trials in particular), freedom of expression, public procurement system, women's rights and the “fading” independence of the regulating institutions. But both the praise and criticism in the report and the enlargement strategy paper cannot help but be overshadowed by a sense of urgency. There is a deep frustration in Ankara, as well as among its supporters in Europe, that a “reset” is necessary to overcome the folly of “Turkophobia,” which threatens to derail the negotiations entirely. Two points may be raised critically with regard to the report. One has to do with Cyprus. It says: “… It is urgent that Turkey fulfils its obligation of fully implementing the Additional Protocol and makes progress towards normalization of bilateral relations with the Republic of Cyprus. It also urges the avoidance of any kind of threat, source of friction or action that could damage good neighborly relations and the peaceful settlement of disputes. The EU will continue to follow up and review progress made on these issues in accordance with the relevant Council decisions.” To any outside observer with a sufficient degree of knowledge of the conflict, this passage is a problematic one – which to a large degree justifies tough reactions from Egemen Bağış, chief negotiator of Turkey. It avoids, either through myopia or helplessness over pressure from Greek Cyprus, any reference to the importance of a solution in UN-sponsored negotiations. The report is right to point out Turkey's obligations to open its ports to Cypriot vessels and flights, but by failing to emphasize endorsement for a settlement in the UN-sponsored talks “without delay,” it only encourages the Greek Cypriot administrations to drag its feet further and go on with damaging policies against Turkey's accession. It is a high priority; therefore, Ankara's voice must be taken into account in this key context. Secondly, if the next major step for Turkey is a new constitution, then the high priority for Ankara must be to secure freedom of expression: simply, any restriction could undermine the entire civilian dialogue process and create fear among citizens to speak out. Indeed, all the articles mentioned in various laws prevent a fully free debate in media, academia and politics. “Journalists in jail” remains an issue, despite denials from Ankara. The case of Ahmet Şık, in particular, is an example reminding Turkey of the 1990s. The line between journalism and illegal political activity must be made clear. As it is the right of every accused for a speedy and fair trial (nobody should be immune to detainment), Ankara must aim for the principle that no journalist should be in jail for doing his or her job. At the moment there are five or six such colleagues; and it is a fact. Some Turkish newspapers reported yesterday that “press freedom” will be a new criterion for accession to membership. If these reports are true, then the EU Commission has a complicated job. In many Balkan countries and in Turkey, the issue can never be simplified to state or government-sponsored oppression. It has been clear in the case of Turkey that the corrupt relationship between media owners and politicians, lack of fair competition in the media sector, insufficient legislation to regularize the sector for pluralism and diversity, direct ownership pressure over editorial independence and the continuation of state-controlled public broadcasting are aspects as crucial as the legal restrictions. There is also “homework” -- a priority -- for the commission: to work much more actively to ease the counter-productive visa regulations for Turkish passport holders. The current system sets up an invisible wall in between. This will be a serious goodwill gesture, bringing the two sides closer. Only then can many of us start to discuss with each other, face to face, the huge damage the Sarkozy administration and various “Turkophobes” caused for a common future. 2011-10-13

No comments: