Turkey and the EU: slowly but surely

Daily News Egypt
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WASHINGTON, DC: When Turkey was granted official-candidate status for EU membership in 1999, neither the EU nor Turkey thought that the transition would be an easy or rapid one. And it has not been. Out of the 35 chapters – necessary benchmarks for accession determined by the EU – only six have been opened and only one, namely Science and Technology, has been completed.

Obstacles to Turkey’s accession as well as to the thawing of internal EU opposition to Turkey’s candidacy are gradually eroding, though about as slowly as a moving glacier.

A recent report by the Turkish Business Roundtable (TUSIAD) provides an exhaustive analysis of Turkey’s progress towards fostering “a deeper democracy, a more stable social structure, and a stronger economy. The report outlines the reforms it would like to see percolated into Turkey’s society while providing a roadmap for continued progress towards accession.

The TUSIAD report highlights the parliamentary system, public administration, human rights and the judiciary as key areas of focus for developing the country’s democratic system further. Regarding social structure, emphasis is placed on education, labor market efficiency, gender equality and regional development. Finally, it says the economy could be strengthened through sustainable growth, production, competition, investment procedures, taming the informal economy and privatization.

Recently, Turkey’s social security reform has been lauded, and the country has made great strides in creating an efficient online e-government system in the areas of health and pension benefits, education, legal services, transportation, commerce and tax collection. Improvements are also being made in the healthcare system, cultural heritage management and electoral procedures.

Human rights issues, a matter of concern for Europe, have seen improvement as well, although the report notes that sometimes “practice fails to follow legislation, which has not yet been “internalized in the judiciary and administrative organization.

This became evident after it was revealed on Oct. 14 that a leftist political activist died in prison after being tortured. The Turkish Justice Minister, ordering a full investigation into the incident, has promised appropriate punishment for the 19 perpetrators in accordance with Turkey’s official zero-tolerance policy for torture.

Much of what has been holding Turkey’s EU process back in addition to Turkey’s slow-moving reforms, though, has been the gradual weakening of Turkish-European public relations.

For one thing, eight out of 35 chapters of the negotiation process were halted in 2006 when Turkey refused to allow the use of its ports and airports by Greek Cypriot traffic. This followed the last-minute failure of the Annan Plan in 2004 that would have created a United Nations-backed Unified Cyprus Republic.

The current pace of the peace negotiations between the Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities provides much hope for Turkish accession to the European Union. On Oct. 13 the two sides met for their fourth round of negotiations, and the prospects for a positive outcome are good.

European-Turkish public relations, however, have meanwhile deteriorated because of rhetoric in opposition to Turkey’s EU membership from French president Nicolas Sarkozy, the current EU president, and Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany. Both European leaders have often expressed support for something akin to a “privileged partnership status for Turkey in the EU, although the exact meaning of this arrangement remains unclear.

In fact, this status appears similar to Turkey’s current standing since it already benefits from unrestricted trade with EU member nations through a customs union agreement.

Also, Sarkozy’s proposal for a Mediterranean Union for countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea was originally interpreted by most Turks as an alternative for the EU to avoid Turkey’s eventual full membership. Turkey became part of this organization when it was created in March of this year only after receiving several assurances from the EU that membership would not be in place of full EU membership.

Turks were again angered when a measure was proposed in France’s legislature that would have made a national referendum by the French public mandatory for EU candidate countries with a population more than 5 percent of the total EU population – a move that might have blocked Turkey’s entry. Fortunately for Turkey, this measure failed.

When hearing such negative rhetoric from Europe, Turks begin to doubt the sincerity of European leaders and become jaded about the accession process. Some Turks have even begun to accept the idea of maintaining the so-called privileged partnership status. Like Puerto Rico, a US territory, Turkey might hope to benefit from the trade relationship but remain politically disengaged and independent.

If the EU continues to come up with additional excuses to prolong accession, such as that of “enlargement fatigue or the idea that it cannot absorb Turkey because it is still coping with the effects of the rapid absorption of some Eastern European countries, the public could eventually lose interest in EU accession for good. Therefore, if the European Union is truly serious about Turkey’s accession, it must make sure that those voices issuing support and encouragement are heard loudly and clearly.

Liam Hardyis a research assistant at the Turkish Business Roundtable (TUSIAD) in Washington, DC. To view the report mentioned in this article, please visit www.tusaid.us. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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