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In this column, Emma Bonino, former Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs and former European Commissioner, argues that 21st century Turkey is a regional power to be reckoned with but that its accession to the European Union depends largely on it resuming democratisation.
ROME, May 30 2014 (IPS) - Since 2004, the Independent Commission on Turkey (ICT) has watched closely developments within Turkey and between Turkey and the European Union (EU). On April 7 the ITC launched its third report, Turkey in Europe: The Imperative for Change.
The report puts in a nutshell what to do for progress in EU-Turkey relations under present circumstances: “In the turbulent times we are living in, a stable, democratic and prosperous Turkey is ever more in the vital interest of the EU and Turkey. We call upon Turkey to resume its democratisation and reverse its shortcomings. In this context we are firmly convinced that re-launching of a credible accession process to the EU can buttress Turkey’s efforts to cure its internal rifts, and accelerate political reform.”
We observed how the vicious circle between Turkey and the EU that we sketched in 2009 deepened significantly Turkey’s mistrust and disaffection towards the EU grew, while the EU, absorbed by its internal crisis, largely neglected the accession process towards Turkey.
By 2013, we started seeing signs of a possible new beginning between Turkey and the EU. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Brussels, and perhaps above all, the agreement between Turkey and the EU on readmission and a visa liberalisation dialogue, encouraged us to believe that in 2014 Turkey’s accession process could be revamped and put on a healthier footing.
Recent years in Turkey have witnessed important efforts along the path of political reform. In many respects Turkey has made important leaps forward. Civil-military relations in Turkey now approximate the standards in EU member states. The era of military interference in civilian life seems to be definitively over.
Regarding the Kurdish question, the Turkish government has undertaken a courageous process of reconciliation with the Kurdish nationalist movement.
The road ahead is long and bumpy, but the results achieved so far – when compared to where Turkey stood only two decades ago – are truly historic.
We also note, however, that in other important respects – notably freedom of expression, judicial reform, separation of powers, and rule of law – steps forward were matched or overtaken by parallel and at times greater steps backwards.
In the Report, the Commission criticises the Turkish government for displaying increasing authoritarian tendencies and draws attention to the widening gap between the EU and Turkey. Special emphasis is placed on judicial independence, separation of powers, freedom of media, restrictions on internet and government’s poor performance in freedom of thought, expression and demonstration in the aftermath of the Gezi Park protest initiated on March 28, 2013.
The deepening polarisation in the country between political forces as well as between the state and segments of civil society underpins many of the difficulties that Turkey has been encountering in consolidating its democracy.
The failure to agree on a new civilian constitution, the protests sparked in Gezi Park and the corruption scandal that enveloped Turkey at the close of 2013 all epitomise diverse manifestations of such nefarious polarisation.
A credible EU accession process that can assist Turkey’s democratic consolidation lies in the EU’s ability both to inspire reforms and to act as a glue between a disparate set of actors in Turkey, who have otherwise been torn apart by centrifugal forces.
At the same time, a healthy relationship between Turkey and the EU is predicated on Turkey’s efforts to reverse its political shortcomings and resume the path of democratic reform.
As regards economic development, Turkey has continued to demonstrate considerable resilience, having weathered the global financial storm and the ensuing repercussions on the Eurozone remarkably well so far.
Since Turkey’s accession process began, the EU-Turkey relationship has deepened significantly also in a number of areas which, at first glance, may seem detached from the accession process.
In the realm of energy, the interdependence between the EU and Turkey has grown in recent years, notwithstanding the stalling of the accession process.
Turkey has firmly established itself as a key transit country in the Southern Energy Corridor, and the recent agreements to transport Azerbaijani gas represent the first concrete manifestations in the making. But as a fast growing and energy hungry country, close to multiple sources of gas, Turkey aims at becoming not only a transit state, but also an energy hub.
In particular, Turkey could become a major destination and route for new gas sources from the Eastern Mediterranean and Iraq. In the case of the Eastern Mediterranean, a pipeline from Israel to Turkey passing through Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone could also catalyse progress in the Cyprus peace process.
More broadly, 21st century Turkey’s foreign policy projection in the neighbourhood and beyond has lived through a remarkable rise. In terms of diplomatic initiatives, trade, movement of people, development assistance, military missions, or cultural outreach, Turkey’s regional and global role is unambiguously on the rise.
This does not mean that Turkish foreign policy initiatives are always successful. Turkey’s acute problems with Syria, the downturn of relations with Egypt, its complicated relations with Iran, Iraq and Israel, and its failure to move forward on Cyprus and Armenia all testify to this.
All notwithstanding, however, 21st century Turkey is clearly a regional power to be reckoned with. Across the EU there has been a rising appreciation of Turkey’s strategic relevance and a deepening consensus on the desirability of close foreign policy cooperation with Turkey.
The Independent Commission on Turkey strongly believes that change in both Turkey and the EU has become imperative. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)
(*) Chaired by Martti Ahtisaari, the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and former President of Finland, the Independent Commission on Turkey, established in 2004, comprises prominent figures such as Emma Bonino, the former Foreign Minister of Italy, Hans van den Broek, former Foreign Minister of the Netherlands, Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of Munich Security Conference, David Miliband, former Secretary of State of Great Britain, Marcelino Oreja Aguirre, former Foreign Minister of Spain, Michel Rocard, former Prime Minister of France, and Albert Rohan, former Secretary General of Foreign Affairs, Austria.
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