‘Turkey can overcome its crisis scenario’

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There is a good chance that Turkey will overcome its political crisis after the general elections on 22 July, which should help reach consensus on a presidential candidate. Whatever the outcome, full EU membership is set to remain the objective of the next Turkish government.

Sinan Ülgen is chairman of the Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) in Istanbul.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Turkey is about to hold parliamentary elections on 22 July. What results do you expect and do you think that this will help Turkey to overcome its internal political crisis?

According to the results of the latest opinion polls, the outcome of the election is clear in one respect: the current ruling party, AKP, will retain its leading position in Turkey’s next parliament. AKP may also win the majority necessary to establish a government single-handedly. The other outcome would be a coalition between the two opposition parties; the centre-left CHP and the nationalist MHP. 

It is however very unlikely that any of the parties will obtain a two-thirds majority, which is required in order to obtain the necessary parliamentary support for choosing the country’s new president. Therefore the parties will most likely agree on a consensus candidate. This would allow the country to overcome its crisis scenario.

What effect would the re-election or defeat of the AKP have on EU-Turkey relations?

If AKP gets re-elected, progress towards the full membership objective will remain high on the AKP’s agenda. Therefore the current approach towards the EU should remain unchanged. If there is a CHP-MHP coalition government, a reappraisal of the current strategy is to be expected. Full EU membership will remain the ultimate objective. However, the new government may, for instance, want to change the negotiating framework. It may demand that the EU eliminates those existing references in the said document that are perceived to be incompatible with the objective of full membership – such as the reference to the permanent availability of safeguards regarding the free movement of persons, or special rules for agriculture. The new government would also, I believe, seek reassurance from the EU that the shared objective is nothing but full membership.

Why is the scepticism of Europeans towards Turkish EU accession – and stereotypes about Turkey – so deeply rooted?

The main reason for the deep-rooted feelings in Europe about Turkey probably concerns the role that Turkey and Turks were cast to play throughout much of Europe’s tragic history. Turkey and the Turks were often viewed as “the Other”. This perception served to achieve internal unity and a more profound sense of identity for European nations. In Sartre’s words “l’enfer c’est les autres – hell is the others”. However, the 21st century presents very different challenges than the Middle Ages or even the 19th century. Keeping Turkey and the Turks as “the Other” will not help Europe to deal with these modern-day challenges. On the contrary, existing prejudices about Turkey should be overcome so as to build a stronger Europe.   

Why has Turkey not managed to successfully tackle its image problem in Europe and what could be done to make these efforts more effective?

Turkey’s efforts to enhance its image in Europe have so far been far too timid and too haphazard. In fact, this is one area which represents the most significant shortcoming of the AKP’s EU policy. This is all the more surprising since Turkey has already established an entity devoted to image building, working on the basis of a public-private partnership. However, political leaders are aware of this problem and the incoming government is likely to put much more emphasis on this dimension of the relationship, provided that full membership remains on track. In fact, now that the essential infrastructure exists and is operational, what remains to be done is the development of an overall strategy for the long-term task of image building, and the endowment of this strategy with sufficient funding – commensurate with the importance of the aim sought after.

Following its refusal to open a further negotiating chapter with Turkey on economic and monetary union, France is seen as the main stumbling block on the road to Turkey’s EU accession. Do you think Turkey will be able to overcome French opposition, and how?

I believe that it primarily falls on other EU member states to overcome French opposition to Turkey. Sarkozy’s policies regarding Turkey are a threat to the credibility of the Union as a whole – because if successful, it would mean that the EU would have reneged on a promise and commitment it adopted at the highest political level – during an EU Summit. The potential role of the EU as a credible and responsible actor in global and regional politics would then be severely undermined. Once the principle of “pacta sunt servanta” is violated, its impact on the whole process of enlargement and even on the process of European integration should not be underestimated. That is why I believe that other EU member states should take the lead in convincing France that saying ‘No’ to Turkey after all that has been accomplished and all that has been committed is not a very astute strategy. 

Following the Polish drama at the recent EU Summit, do you think this could raise fears of Turkey taking on a similar ”blocking role” to Poland once it enters the Union, especially with the Council voting system adapted to better reflect countries’ populations, thus giving more say to large member states such as Turkey?

In fact, academic studies demonstrate that the new rules regarding the Council voting system make for easier decision-making – making the emergence of a blocking minority less likely with Turkey as a full member. It is also worth recalling that Turkey’s approach might be quite different to Poland’s, in that Turkey has been a player in almost all the political institutions of the West (Council of Europe, NATO, OECD etc.) since they were established, and therefore has more experience in playing the multilateral game.

There has been a large drop in Turkish support for EU membership. What are the main reasons behind this and how could the EU win over popular consent again? What is the effect of President Sarkozy’s comments about Turkey having no place in Europe on Turkish public opinion?

The main reason for the sharp drop in public support in Turkey regarding EU membership is the widely-held belief that no matter what Turkey does, the EU will find a way to prevent Turkish accession. Existing structural impediments such as the eventual referendum in France on Turkish accession, the unrelenting talk of a “privileged partnership” as well as Sarkozy’s rhetoric fuel euroscepticism in Turkey. In addition, there is also a perception that the EU discriminates against Turkey. Previously-mentioned references in the Framework for Negotiations deemed to be incompatible with the perspective of full membership, the unfair treatment over Cyprus and the criticism – sometimes unfounded – embodied in many European Parliament resolutions on Turkey are viewed as a testimony of the lack of true sincerity on Europe’s part.

The state of Turkish public opinion can, however, be transformed relatively easily, provided that Turkey is given a clear and unambiguous message about the end game of the relationship. What Turks need to hear is no different from the message given to previous candidates. If Turkey is successful in fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria and adopting the EU acquis, then it will be able to join the club. Until Europe is ready to send out this unambiguous message, the Turkey-EU relationship is set to remain volatile, as is public opinion on both sides. 

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