The Malta Independent 24 May 2017, Wednesday

Turkey, Occupy Gezi, and the European Union

David Casa Saturday, 15 June 2013, 09:08 Last update: about 4 years ago

Turkey’s journey towards EU membership has been long, and showed few signs of reaching its termination even prior to the Occupy Gezi movement and the Turkish government’s reaction. Turkey is still far from satisfying many EU membership criteria and ensuring the unanimous support of current EU members. Recent events certainly do not make Turkey look ready for EU membership. However, it would be wrong to deny the genuine progress Turkey has made in many respects, or to treat the heavy-handed response to Occupy Gezi as the death knell of Turkish EU membership. Depending on how events develop, Occupy Gezi is just as likely to accelerate Turkish progress as end it.

Turkey’s domestic barriers to membership are severe. Although the country has made some judicial reforms and taken serious steps towards a new constitution, judicial abuse of power remains common. Worryingly, Turkey leads the world in the number of imprisoned journalists and curtails freedom of expression through additional means. The treatment of several ethnic minorities in Turkey is a serious concern, as is religious freedom. Throughout Turkish history secular authoritarian rulers restricted the freedom of the religious majority; there is some concern Prime Minister Erdogan’s party has moved in the opposite direction. Recent and highly controversial laws restricting the consumption of alcohol contributed significantly to the Gezi protests.

Turkey’s foreign policy is also problematic. Turkish troops have occupied Northern Cyprus since 1974. Although Turkey theoretically continues to support ongoing negotiations to resolve the conflict between the Greek and Turkish communities on Cyprus, little progress has been made. Turkish accession to the EU absolutely requires some resolution to the Cyprus conflict, yet the Turkish government has acted intransigently. Turkey has not complied with its treaty obligations concerning trade with Cyprus, has threatened companies doing business in Cyprus, and suspended relations with the EU during Cyprus’ EU Presidency.

It would be inaccurate and unfair to say that Turkey has made no progress under Erdogan’s Presidency. Negotiations with the EU have resulted in substantive changes in many respects, and Erdogan recently made admirable progress towards resolving Turkey’s decades-long conflict with Kurdish revolutionaries. Although Erdogan has many distressing authoritarian tendencies, his regime (at least until now) has been more democratic than its predecessors, and had a legitimate mandate from a fair election. Nonetheless, his regime’s behaviour indicates that joining the EU anytime soon is not a high priority. This is not surprising, as Erdogan’s foreign policy has emphasised Turkish aspirations to lead the Middle East over its relations with the West, breaking from his predecessors’ pattern. This is not to say Turkish policy is anti-Europe or anti-American, but that Turkey’s European concerns have lost relative weight.

The real question is not what Occupy Gezi reveals about Turkey’s progress, but how the political fallout will change the internal balance of power in Turkey and the priorities of the Turkish leadership. The protests started over plans to remove a few trees in Taksim Gezi park in Istanbul, but escalated due to longstanding issues. It’s reasonable to say that many of the protestors are secularists, pushing back against Erdogan’s social policy; it’s also indisputable that many people joined the protest to make a stand against Erdogan’s heavy handedness before and during the protests. Protesters’ demands concerning foreign policy and the treatment of minorities is harder to determine; historically, secular nationalists in Turkey took a harder line on minorities than religious groups. Some Turks are infuriated at Erdogan’s political party (the AKP) and what it stands for, but the AKP is still a popular party and there is a significant faction of Turks who dislike Erdogan but still support the AKP. Turkish President Abdullah Gül is an AKP moderate who seems to be positioning himself as a peacemaker. If his wing of the AKP acquires more influence from this crisis, his pro-European policies will gain greater weight. 

The EU must take a stand against human rights abuses in Turkey, which is why I have called on the Commissioner for Enlargement to suspend ascension negotiations with Turkey. However, this will not stop me and my colleagues in the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee from looking for new opportunities to promote human rights and the Turkish accession process.

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