Why Turkey and Ukraine need the EU

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Catherine Ashton with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an. Turkey, April 2013. [EEAS/Flickr]

While in the case of Ukraine recent developments seem to have invigorated the EU’s approach to a certain degree, in the case of Turkey it remains unclear how the EU is planning to move forward, write Amanda Paul and Demir Murat Seyrek.

Amanda Paul is a Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre. Dr. Demir Murat Seyrek is an independent analyst on European affairs.

“Turkey and Ukraine are both large, strategically important Black Sea states located in the EU’s immediate neighbourhood. Despite the fact that they have little in common in terms of democratic culture, level of economic development and regional influence, they are united by the fact that the EU has an important role to play in supporting the democratisation and modernisation processes of both states. 

Unfortunately the internal dynamics in both states have so far proved too weak to drive the democratization process alone. Major problems exist in terms of democratic culture, pluralism, fundamental rights and freedoms and mutual respect between different actors.  Turkey seemed to have been more advanced than Ukraine until recent developments proved otherwise, with Turkey’s leadership adopting an increasing authoritarian style of governance.  In Ukraine, talk of reform and democratization had never been transformed into concrete actions with Ukraine’s political elites – up until now – choosing to increase their own power and wealth over the modernization of the country.  Anti-government protests have taken place in both countries as a consequence of undemocratic leadership, abuse of the rule of law and corruption.  However, considering the activism and values of the younger generations, and seeing Gezi Park and Euromaiden with their supporters, numbers and influence, these two countries have clear grassroots support for democracy and European values which needs to be harnessed by the EU.

Turkey: Increasingly Authoritarian

Turkey’s democratization process has a strong link with the EU beginning more than 50 years ago. Considering the Ottoman Empire’s westernization process in the nineteenth century, Turkey’s long journey to Europe is an even older story. The most important democracy-related reforms were achieved thanks to the EU’s active involvement and Turkey’s EU membership vision. The democratisation and harmonisation process that began at the end of 1990s and ended with the launch of accession negotiations on 3 October 2005 could be considered as the most important reform period in Turkey since the Republic’s early years. Unfortunately, the stalling of the process, which in large part has been due to number of EU Member States opposing Turkish accession, has had a significant impact on the democratisation process.  This has created a major challenge for pro-democracy groups who used to utilise the EU as a tool to pressurise the government for further reforms. The EU has lost its influence and leverage on Turkey while pro-democracy groups in Turkey have lost their most important and powerful ally. Today we are currently witnessing the serious negative consequences of this development: back-pedaling on fundamental democratic principles and values including those related to the rule of law and freedom of expression, which may create irreversible damage for Turkish democracy. The new internet law restricting the freedom of expression, changes in the legal system endangering the separation of power and the independence of judiciary and the government’s extremely disappointing approach towards serious corruption allegations represent a serious breach of the government’s commitment to the Copenhagen political criteria – a key condition for the accession process of the candidate countries.

Ukraine – Looking for a future beyond the past

Ukraine’s situation is different to Turkey.  Despite being a country at the heart of Europe, Ukraine has never been granted a vision for a future as part of the EU.  Ukraine’s road to Europe has proved to be a very difficult one.  This can be attributed in part firstly to a lack of political will to carry out the necessary reforms with not one Ukrainian government being an example of good governance. The government under the Presidency of Viktor Yanukovych achieved particularly spectacular results.  The rule of law was crushed, while the police, courts, judges and prosecutors were all corrupt. Standing under the EU flag Ukrainians protested Yanukovych’s decision to ditch the signature of an Association Agreement with the EU and his lawless, corrupt system of governance. That is how the rest of the world discovered the autocratic face of Yanukovych who for the first time in Ukraine’s history used violence against civilians during the Euromaidan protests.

Secondly, there has been a consistent reluctance from the EU to offer Ukraine a clear European future; a failure to develop visionary strategy that could drive the democratisation and reform process and too much concern over possible blow-back from Russia. After the 2004 Orange Revolution the EU failed to change its policy of “Kyiv, get your house in order and then we will see”.  While the recently negotiated Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) offer some tangible benefits, they can only be harvested in the long term and in the short term require tough and expensive political and economic reforms.  Having a clear European future would make a significant difference as it would offer Ukraine’s leadership a solid argument for difficult steps.

And third is Russia, with Russian President Vladimir Putin viewing Ukraine as an indivisible part of Russia and the key component of his Eurasian Union dream.  A democratic, value-based Ukraine is the last thing that Putin wants as it would jeopardize his own authoritarian style of governance.  Yet the depth of Russia’s objections to Ukraine’s European integration aspirations only became fully visible over the past 12-months: first with threatening Kyiv with trade sanctions and gas cut- off; and then with Russia’s recent annexing of Crimea and ongoing action aimed at destabilising and splitting the country, bringing with it the sort of geopolitical confrontation between Russia and West not witnessed since the Cold War. 

A new opportunity for the EU

Despite the current turmoil in both states, and the desire from significant parts of both societies for a strong EU anchor, it remains unclear whether the EU is ready to fundamentally change its approach.  If the EU wishes to see flourishing European values in its immediate neighbourhood, it must deepen engagement with both states.  While in the case of Ukraine recent developments seem to have invigorated the EU’s approach to a certain degree, at the same time the EU is not ready to give Ukraine a signal that it could one day be a member, nor does it have a clear strategy or long term vision for the region.  Without a solid commitment and vision from the EU it will be difficult for Ukraine to move to a future beyond the past as it pretty much involves rebuilding the country both economically and politically.

In the case of Turkey it still remains unclear how the EU is planning to move forward. Accession negotiations are “de facto” suspended which makes little sense. While the EU is criticizing Turkey regarding the independence of the judiciary, the justice system and fundamental rights at the same time negotiation chapters 23 (Judiciary & Fundamental Rights) and 24 (Justice, Freedom & Security) are still waiting to be opened by the EU. 

To have no vision for the future of Turkey and Ukraine would not only be a strategic and historical mistake, it would also be a failure in terms of the values supported by the EU. Pro-democracy and pro-EU forces in both states need the clear support from friends of Turkey and Ukraine in Europe and a clear vision for these two countries’ place in the future of the EU. Decisions on Turkey and Ukraine will also play a key role regarding the future of the EU.  To be a global actor and an economic and political power, increasing the efficiency and size of the EU’s internal market, Turkey and Ukraine may offer a huge potential. This does not necessarily mean the speedy accession of these countries but a clear vision of a future perspective.  Although Turkey is clearly more advanced in terms of economic development, democratic culture, the level of integration with the EU and civil society, both countries need to go through comprehensive reform processes. Considering the activism and values of young generations, both countries have this potential and it should not be ignored.”