Turkey's Reactions to the EU Progress Report

Zero Interest

The European Union's recent Progress Report on Turkey has met with barely any reactions from the Turkish government, also being all but ignored by the media. Jürgen Gottschlich reports on the details from Istanbul

Turkish and European flags (photo: DW/dpa)
Gradually turning away from the EU? The days when Ankara stared mesmerised towards Brussels like a rabbit facing a snake seem to be over and done with, writes Jürgen Gottschlich

​​Egeman Bagis, Turkey's chief negotiator with the EU, displayed a markedly conciliatory reaction: "We are satisfied, it is a balanced report." But this year's progress report saw Brussels intervening much further into Turkish domestic policy than in the past.

The European Commission issued criticism not only on minority rights, gender equality, freedom of religion and the general rush for reform, but also called for a long-overdue improvement to trade union rights.

The report is very specific on the issue of freedom of opinion. The commission regards the exorbitant tax demands on the opposition media conglomerate Dogan Yayin, amounting to almost two billion euro, as an assault on free speech. There has even been unofficial talk of "Putin-like methods".

Egeman Bagis, however, dismissed the criticism with a wave of his hand. Tax demands have nothing to do with government decisions, he commented, they are down to the tax authorities – and a court examination is also pending.

No angry reactions

It is more than obvious with what calm, or even lack of any interest whatsoever, the progress report has been received by the government – but also by the media and the general public.

Olli Rehn (photo: AP)
EU enlargement commissioner Rehn displayed disappointment over continuing persecution of writers – such as the Nobel laureate Pamuk – but emphasised Turkey's strategic significance for Europe

​​There have been no angry reactions on TV talk shows, merely reserved reporting in the major newspapers – and the heavyweights of Turkish politics, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, President Abdullah Gül and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, have made no comment whatsoever.

Yet this is not just a symptom of the widespread disappointment on the issue of Europe and particularly the tandem of Merkel and Sarkozy that has set in over recent years. There is a new ingredient in this year's recipe: the Turkish government is beginning to believe it is growing less dependent on Europe.

A few short years ago, a report like a recent piece in the US magazine Newsweek would have caused an absolute scandal. The correspondent Owen Matthews warned Ankara that its behaviour towards the Dogan Group could lead it into serious difficulties with the EU. Yet now, the story only warrants reporting in the Dogan media themselves.

Growing EU scepticism

Instead, President Abdullah Gül has remarked in an interview with the French Figaro that not only the French are sceptical about Turkey's EU accession – in the end, he commented, Turkey itself might well decide membership is no longer in its interest.

The days when Ankara stared mesmerised towards Brussels like a rabbit facing a snake seem to be over and done with. There are various reasons behind this sea change, both political and economic.

In the face of the economic crisis in Europe, Turkey's politicians feel they have got off rather lightly themselves. Although the country's unemployment figures are at an all-time high, economists are predicting three to four percent growth for 2010.

Turkey's banking system has proved stable, with the stock exchange already back up to levels higher than before the collapse of Lehman Brothers – a sign that investors have not fled the country, although Erdogan is still refusing to accept aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Turkey doesn't need that crutch any more, he was recently quoted. This strong position is supported by the increasingly important role Turkey has now adopted as an energy transit country.

"No problems with neighbours"

Gas and oil pipelines from Russia, the Caspian basin and Iraq lead through Turkey to the Mediterranean or are planned, as in the case of Nabucco, to transport energy to western Europe. Turkey is playing a relatively clever game of poker with the EU and Russia, attempting to keep all its options open. In energy policy terms, western Europe is now far more dependent on Turkey than vice versa.

photo: AP
New economic policy perspectives for Turkey: signing the Nabucco pipeline agreement in Ankara, July 2009

​​Politically, Erdogan's government considers it has freed itself from dependency on Europe with its new "multidimensional foreign policy". Under the motto "No problems with neighbours", foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu launched an offensive just over a year ago – which has already cleared a number of barriers previously separating Turkey from Syria, Iraq and Armenia.

Europe has hardly played a role in all these efforts; if at all, it is the USA that is Turkey's partner in the West. Washington has provided major and effective support for the country's attempts at reconciliation with Armenia.

The Obama administration placed considerable pressure on Armenia to keep Sergei Sarkasian's government on course, not backing out at the last minute out of fear of its own courage. And Washington is playing a key role in the emerging rapprochement between Turkey and Iraq too. Relations are now so positive that Erdogan took half his cabinet along on a recent trip to sign various agreements in Baghdad.

New scope for Turkish politics

And even the relationship to the Kurdish regional government in North Iraq, for several years rather hostile, is now so relaxed that the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani has openly called for the PKK to lay down its weapons, on Turkish television.

photo: AP
A sea change in Turkish-Kurdish relations: meeting between the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the chairman of the pro-Kurdish DTP, Ahmet Türk, in Ankara, August 2009

​​In return, Turkey has long been in an unofficial process of acknowledging Barzani and his people as the actual government of North Iraq, thereby granting a Kurdish state its de facto blessings. All these steps are political innovations that would have been unthinkable not long ago, and which create new scope for Turkish politics.

The recent discord with Israel shows just how independently Ankara is now acting. While Turkey's new policy towards its neighbours is still very much in the EU's interest although Brussels has played no active role in the process, Turkey's almost complete breach with Israel by no means to the advantage of the West.

Ever since the Gaza War, Erdogan has been polarising against Israel in the sharpest of tones. Recently, an anti-Semitic series on Turkish state television and the withdrawal of an invitation for Israel to take part in a military manoeuvre in Turkey have fanned the flames.

Looking to the Middle East?

In parallel to Ankara's criticism of Israel, relations with Syria have been growing warmer and warmer. Travel between the two countries is now possible without a visa – and it can be no coincidence that on the very day that Brussels presented its progress report, the Turkish and Syrian governments staged a huge show on the border, removing the barriers very much in the style of previous German-French PR campaigns.

So is Turkey turning away from Europe and towards the Middle East? It is too soon to answer this question conclusively. What is certain is that Turkey is currently attempting to reduce its dependence on Europe and multiply its foreign policy options.

Yet the cleverer minds within the governing AKP also know that even in the Middle East and the Caucasus, the country's weight is also measured in terms of the strength of its ties to Europe.

For this reason alone, we cannot expect the Erdogan government to cut its links to Europe, no matter how much solidarity it wishes to show with its Muslim neighbours. Instead, Ankara longs to be finally and fully acknowledged and taken seriously by Europe.

Jürgen Gottschlich

© Qantara.de 2009

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshirey

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