Turkey hoped to open a new chapter in its virtually frozen EU membership talks this week. But following a strain in relations with Europe due to the government’s handling of the protests that rocked the country for almost a month and a subsequent diplomatic spat with Germany, EU ministers meeting in Luxembourg took a slightly different path.
They formalised the decision to start talks on a new area, while postponing the meeting that will officially mark the opening of the chapter for at least four months.
The EU General Affairs Council meeting yesterday (25 June) “agreed to open chapter 22,” underscoring that the intergovernmental conference with Turkey, which was previously expected to take place today (26 June), will now only happen after the European Commission presents its annual progress report in October.
The chapter in question, which covers the issue of regional policies, is one of the several chapters that France had been refusing to give go ahead since the term of former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Earlier this year Paris lifted its veto.
The issue had a symbolic importance for Turkey’s accession process, given that it had not been able to open any negotiating chapters since 2010. So, the hopes in Ankara were high that the current Irish EU presidency would mark the end of stalling in the membership talks.
But since prospects of opening the chapter was dimmed by the developments in the past few weeks, formal agreement between the member states to open the chapter was enough to be hailed immediately as a victory in Ankara.
“It has been confirmed that the chapter will be opened by an irrevocable decision,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, speaking to journalists in Ankara.
Asked whether the council decision actually means a postponement rather than an opening, Davutoğlu said that the issue was not a “postponement” and only “the dates of some procedural and ceremonial meetings will be decided later on”.
“The 22nd chapter is opened for us. The matter is over,” he said.
A ‘middle course’
The development comes against the background of tense relations between Turkey and the EU, as well as many phone calls between Davutoğlu and his European counterparts until early on Tuesday.
The result was a “good decision in a difficult situation”, said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who had expressed reservations about opening the 22nd chapter last week and was backed by the Netherlands and Austria.
Tuesday’s EU council decision was a “middle course” Çiğdem Nas, secretary-general of the Istanbul based think-tank Economic Development Foundation, told EurActiv Turkey. She added that opening the chapter immediately after the debate surrounding the protests in Turkey could have been perceived as a “reward” to Turkey.
The recent events in Turkey, excessive and disproportionate use of force by security forces, and the problems with freedom of media and expression were largely perceived as a bread of EU values. So, opening a new chapter for the first time in three years in the wake of these events stirred controversy in the EU.
Following a condemning resolution adopted by the European Parliament on 13 June, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he neither recognised the resolution or “such an EU Parliament”.
The tension between Turkey and Germany reached its highest level last week when the foreign ministries of both countries summoned each others’ ambassadors for talks, after the Turkish EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of meddling with Turkey, in order to attract Turkish votes in the upcoming parliamentary elections in September.
Germany's Turkish community has around 2.5 million people.
Merkel had said that she was “appalled” by the Turkish government’s handling of the protests and her party’s election programme underlined opposition to Turkey’s EU membership, due to the country’s size and structure of its economy.
‘EU should never close the door’
However, some EU countries were less reluctant in unfreezing Turkey’s membership talks. Upon arrival for the EU foreign ministers meeting on Monday, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told journalists that “there are always things happening in different countries” and that the EU can’t change its enlargement strategy “because there happens to be some nervousness in one quarter or the other”.
“I think we should never close the door,” said his Belgian counterpart Didier Reynders, adding that accession negotiations are also a way of “making things move” in Turkey.
Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland seemed positive about this. “Turkey and the Council of Europe are listening to each other,” Jagland said during the joint press conference with Davutoğlu in Ankara on Tuesday, adding that the European human rights watchdog can continue to play an important role in Turkey’s EU journey as well.
Jagland has warned Turkey about disproportionate use of force against the demonstrations recently.
"Many circles in the EU are against shutting out [accession] negotiations with Turkey altogether. That's because the EU would lose the opportunity to influence the democratisation [process] in Turkey, among other things. Therefore, opening of the chapter is expected to take place as soon as the progress report is presented," said Nas.
But she also pointed out that the developments in Turkey during the coming months will play an important role , adding that if those responsible for the mistreatment and the deaths occurred during the protests are not charged appropriately, Turkey’s chances of opening a new chapter may come under threat.
Ankara braces for criticism
The emblematical step of opening of a new chapter in Turkey’s EU membership talks in years will remain in limbo for the coming months as the date for a formal opening is not set yet, and Ankara has toned down its reaction to EU criticism in recent days.
But the Turkish government prepares to strengthen its defence against the accusations of fundamental rights abuses in the meantime.
On Tuesday, Bağış hosted a working lunch for EU countries' ambassadors in Ankara, and presented them the government’s account of the course of protests and Western examples of excessive use of force by the police.
“While we do not approve the approach of your own countries to similar issues that Turkey is being criticised about, we will have the opportunity to share how security forces may exceed their authorisation in every country,” Bağış told the diplomats, adding that Turkey was not a "second class democracy which may yield to internal or external pressure".