April 03, 2012, Tuesday

Does Turkey care what EU thinks?

After a period of intense lobbying, at the end of last week the European Parliament’s Turkey Report was finally adopted. This year’s edition welcomes efforts to strengthen civil supervision of the army, while at the same time calling on Turkey to fully open military expenses to judicial control as well as include the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) in civil jurisdiction; it reiterates the need for urgent judicial reform and a new “inclusive” constitution, which will help strengthen democracy.

In drafting the constitution, Turkey should provide for full recognition of all its ethnic and religious communities, acknowledge the inclusive nature of modern citizenship and promote the constitutional protection of mother-tongue language rights. The report also recognizes the important regional role Turkey is playing and that the EU and Turkey should step up their cooperation on shared foreign and neighborhood policy priorities and in the area of energy.

One of the most controversial elements is in reference to the Ergenekon investigation. Up until now, the European Parliament has fully supported the Ergenekon investigation, believing it to be an important step on the way to further strengthening democracy in Turkey. However, this year it has changed its line and for the first time questions the legitimacy of the investigation. It states: “Investigations into coup plan allegations, including Ergenekon and Balyoz cases, should reflect the strength of the Turkish democratic institutions and judiciary, their proper, independent, impartial and transparent operations and their unconditional and firm commitment to fundamental rights. There are growing concerns on allegations that inconsistent evidence has been employed against the defendants in these cases. The EU Commission is called upon to follow these cases and annex its findings in the 2012 Progress Report.”

Frankly, I am not surprised at this statement because over the last year or so, there have been increasing concerns around this town (Brussels) over Ergenekon, with active lobbying being carried out by some groups of people. Overall, I still believe the Ergenekon overhaul has been an important step for Turkey and has contributed to the strengthening of democracy. However, with the strengthening of the role of the European Parliament under the Lisbon Treaty, the European Commission needs to take into account the Parliament’s opinion more seriously than in the past and will likely adhere to this point.

An area of significant concern is media freedom and the continuing arrests of journalists. Journalists and publishers are subject to legal investigations and can face imprisonment for up to three years if convicted of disseminating statements and propaganda from terrorist organizations. Unfortunately, Turkey is currently only declared as being partly free by the media watchdog Freedom House. While press freedom and freedom of expression are guaranteed by the Turkish Constitution, challenges remain, including from fuzzy penal and antiterrorism laws. The recent decision of an İstanbul court to ban the Turkish (pro-Kurdish) newspaper Özgür Gündem from publishing for allegedly spreading “terrorist propaganda” has been seen as a negative step. However, there are also positive signs, including the release of four journalists on March 12. Ahmet Şık, Nedim Şener, Şait Çakır and Coşkun Musluk spent over a year in prison for their alleged involvement in Ergenekon.

Cyprus is also referred to several times. Disappointment is expressed over Turkey’s decision to freeze relations with the European Council during the presidency of Cyprus, it requests that Turkey refrain from any new settlement of Turkish citizens on Cyprus, calls on Turkey to allow political dialogue between the EU and NATO by lifting its veto on cooperative EU-NATO missions that include Cyprus, and calls on Turkey to work intensively for a comprehensive settlement to the Cyprus problem.

The conclusion is that EU-Turkey relations need fresh impetus, but will get it only if Turkey makes more progress on reform. I wonder to what extent Turkey’s leadership actually cares about what is written in this report and others like it. Will Turkey work on the areas where it is criticized or will it just be put on a shelf to gather dust? I guess Turkey will do what it generally does these days -- “cherry pick.”

Today, Turkey feels strong, assertive and bold. The EU process itself has gone some way to helping Turkey reach this point. As an increasingly important regional and global player and, as was just announced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), having Europe’s fastest-growing economy, I doubt that too many people in Ankara will be overly concerned with what a bunch of MEPs think. However, it is important for Ankara to understand that to continue to preach democracy and freedom to others, Turkey needs to adhere to and build up these very things itself.

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