After a week of continued earthquakes in ties between Turkey and the European Unionfollowing the arrests of 12 lawmakers of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), including its co-leaders, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, and the editor-in-chief and a number of writers of daily Cumhuriyet, it seems both parties are willing to launch a new process of dialogue.
Amid the sound and fury over the publication of the Progress Report by the European Commission that highlighted scores of violations of the Copenhagen Criteria, particularly after the July 15 coup attempt and Ankara’s strong-worded reactions to it, there were diplomatic efforts from both sides to avoid unwanted consequences.
First, EU Minister Ömer Çelik took the initiative and hosted EU ambassadors at a breakfast on Nov. 7 in order to provide an opportunity to directly respond to their questions over recent developments. He perhaps did not convince EU ambassadors but he succeeded in delivering Ankara’s message that it was ready to continue to talk on the issues. He also held phone conversations with the EU’s commissioner responsible for enlargement, Johannes Hahn, while Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım phoned European Parliament President Martin Schultz twice over the last week.
More importantly, Council of Europe President Thorbjorn Jagland paid a snap visit to Ankara – just two months after his previous visit – to try to urge the Turkish government to keep its commitments to the promotion of democracy and to issue a friendly warning. The Council of Europe recently appeared as a new tool for both Ankaraand Brussels to overcome long-standing problems, including a disagreement on the definition of terrorism that suspended the accomplishment of the visa liberalization process.
This process will bring about more opportunities for the two sides to listen to each other more. In this regard, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s visit to Ankaranext week will be an important one.
Although this new policy of “engagement” is significant and timely, the ball is still in Turkey’s court in terms of shaping the dynamics of this process. And the question is whether Turkey wants to be a third-world country or not. In trying to find an adequate answer to this, I will refer to Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek who did not hesitate to be outspoken on this very matter.
According to daily Hürriyet, Şimşek said at a closed meeting with businessmen that a Turkey detached from the EU would be perceived as a third-world country. “The more Turkey shows progress in terms of European Union membership, the more it will become attractive.”
Japanese business circles assured him that they wouldn’t invest in Turkey in the event it is severed from the EU, Şimşek said. “Democracy matters a lot. After the jet crisis erupted with Russia, everything suddenly stopped. We have been quarrelling with the EU every day, but things never stopped. We need to continue our EU process for our interests. I always tell Europeans: ‘Rather than talking big about each other, let’s talk and establish a dialogue.’”
As a matter of fact, he repeated an argument that has long been cited in this column as well: “Turkey is a strong country. We started a really big reform movement in 2002 and implemented these reforms one by one. Turkey became successful and grew between 2002 and 2007. Now we need to strengthen the climate of confidence.”
It is, in fact, true that Turkey-EU ties were on the right track when the government was accomplishing reform packages in the period Şimşek referred to. In line with his party, of course, Şimşek sees the adoption of the presidential system as the best remedy to strengthen the climate of confidence, describing systemic change as the biggest reform.
One can understand from Şimşek’s words that the Turkish government does not favor a detachment from the EU or a cutting of ties.
However, the main question is to what extent Şimşek’s vision is shared in other governmental institutions. Additionally, to what extent Şimşek and other senior government members can express their concerns and recommendations freely at cabinet meetings? Even this situation best illustrates the poor state of democracy in Turkey.
One point needs to be understood well: You don’t get to cherry-pick the criteria for the EU accession process. It’s a lot of work to upgrade the democratic, economic, social and other standards of the candidate country to the level of the EU. That means the bloc doesn’t allow freelance membership. To make it short, Turkey will either be a first-world or – as the minister worries – a third-world country.