In recent years, the European Commission’s adoption of its yearly progress report on candidate countries was followed by furious responses from Ankara.
Frustrated with the stalling of its membership negotiations, the Turkish government frequently reacted angrily to criticism from Europe on issues such as human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of media. Last year Burhan Kuzu, a senior MP from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), notoriously threw a copy of the Commission’s progress report into the thrash bin during a live televised appearance.
Ankara had been apprehensive about the report the European Commission adopted on 16 October after the government's crackdown on protesters in May and June this year.
Turkish minister for EU affairs Egemen Bağış had warned his European colleagues to expect "even more interesting reactions" to this year’s report.
But the Commission has been unexpectedly moderate in this year’s report, with the exception of some criticism of the Turkish government for its handling of the so-called 'Gezi Park' protests as well as its uncompromising approach towards other key policy areas.
In several areas the report commends the Turkish government, such as for the ‘democratisation package’ it announced last month and its initiatives aimed at ending the conflict with Kurdish insurgent groups.
“The government maintained its overall commitment to further democratisation and political reforms,” the Commission said in the report.
Ankara welcomed the mild approach taken by the Commission, albeit not without a small flare up.
Resentful that the Commission refused to delay the report until after 'Kurban Bayramı', a religious holiday celebrated by Muslims, both the EU and foreign ministries of Turkey waited until Saturday to give their reactions to the report.
“We welcome the fact that important reforms Turkey has made in various areas were underlined in the progress report published this year,” Bağış said in a written statement. "We saw that some of our notifications and warnings that we made until the last minute have corrected some of the errors [in the upcoming report]," Bağış said.
The foreign ministry made a similar statement.
First chapter to open in three years
Bağış also noted that for the first time in EU’s enlargement history, the opening of a new chapter in membership negotiations was linked to a progress report and said that the report included nothing that would prevent the opening of chapter 22, which is about regional policies.
Turkey had hoped last June to open a new chapter in membership talks for the first time in three years after France lifted its veto on chapter 22. But the Gezi Park protests saw diplomatic rows between Ankara and the EU and some of the member states, most notably Germany.
Following these developments, the EU Council, while agreeing on opening of the chapter, decided to delay the intergovernmental meeting which would mark the official opening of the chapter until the Commission adopted its report.
Germany is understood to have dropped its opposition to the opening of the new chapter.
The chapter is expected to open during the current Lithuanian EU Council presidency.
Bağış was defiant of the report's criticism of the Turkish government’s handling of the protests. “We consider that it will be of use to stress that disturbing the peace of our country and nation through violence and illegal methods can never be seen as a way of claiming one’s rights,” he said.
The report deemed that the Gezi Park protests were "overall peaceful, despite the involvement of a small number of protestors", but criticised the police's excessive use of force against the demonstrators.
Bağış also hit back at the Commission, which contrasted President Abdullah Gül’s "conciliatory role across Turkey’s political spectrum and society" to the government’s "uncompromising stance during the protest(s) late May and early June".
He said: “Both our president and prime minister [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] and all of our official institutions have taken a very ‘agreeable’ and ‘conciliatory’ role in realising democratic demands for the past 11 years.”
AKP has controlled the Turkish government since 2002.
‘The Commission is our closest ally’
Speaking at the Eurochambres Economic Forum held in Istanbul last week, Bağış also suggested that ’95 percent’ of the EU’s criticism was concerned with the negotiation chapters 23 and 24, which are about judiciary, fundamental rights, justice, freedom and security. He called for the opening of these chapters, which were among several others blocked during the Cyprus EU presidency.
Analysts say that with last week's report Brussels is trying to maintain its position as the driving force behind Turkey’s political reforms. Istanbul based think-tank Economic Development Foundation has said that the Commission dedicated an extraordinary 20 pages to Chapter 23 in its report and said that this could signal the opening of this chapter soon.
However, the intention of facilitating Turkey’s EU accession may become less pronounced in near future.
While the Turkish EU minister referred to the Commission as Turkey’s "closest ally" in membership talks, it remained to be seen how long the alliance would last. A new new Commission will take office after the European Parliament elections in May 2014.
Polls suggest that the elections may see serious gains from eurosceptics, who are often against Turkey’s EU membership.