EU hints at ‘privileged partnership,’ not membership, as Turkey’s best bet

All talk about keeping Turkey in the EU membership perspective from now on will be a lip service, devoid of meaning.

Turkey continues to daily puzzle observers with bizarre turns and twists. When, for example, it appeared that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had had a long telephone call with US President Donald Trump on May 29, a few — if any — were surprised by the “coincidence” that Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American NASA scientist, who was held for about two years in a Turkish prison, was released hours before the talk.

What Erdogan’s critics call “hostage policies,” a pattern he seems keen to use to get his will through in international arena, was apparently in full action. In the context of Turkey’s shattered relations with the United States, Erdogan is keen to display an erratic behaviour based on the belief that like him, Trump and Trump alone will be the one to “fix” all the damage that brought the two allies onto a full-scale collision course. This is certainly a pipe dream, one that overlooks the fact that the entire US Congress is united against Erdogan’s policies.

Days later, another appearance by Erdogan proved to be an anti-climactic as well, this time in the context of Turkey’s damaged relations with the European Union.

Only a day after the EU Commission made public its regular Progress Report (widely known as the Enlargement Report), a visibly tired, unusually stuttering Erdogan was on stage at his massive palace declaring his long-awaited judicial reform package. He detailed it in nine talking points and, at the end, the audience was left with the sense of “much ado about what?”

All he talked about was a series of cosmetic, structural changes in the judicial processes, new appointment routines of attorneys and judges, issuing privileged, visa-free “green” passports for defence lawyers (apparently a carrot to them) and a very few words about lengthy pretrial detentions. Nothing about securing the freedoms and rights and zero about an amnesty for inmates, many of whom are political prisoners.

The speech must have come as a disappointment for all the Turkey hopefuls in the European Union and elsewhere. It was clear that Erdogan’s announcement of the package was aimed at responding to the EU Turkey report, that many hoped would appease Brussels, even raise hopes that he would soften his well-known harsh stance vis-a-vis domestic dissent, but to no avail.

He only confirmed the belief that the case with Turkey regarding accession negotiations with the European Union was doomed, possibly forever. The report in all aspects noted regress and not progress in any part.

“Turkey has experienced considerable backsliding in the rule of law and the judiciary, fundamental rights, economic institutions, anti-corruption measures, media freedom and other areas,” the report noted.

“Turkey’s accession negotiations have effectively come to a standstill,” it added.

It recommended no further chapters of accession negotiations and no further work towards modernisation of the customs union. Turkey was declared a candidate country in 1999 and, after 20 years, its candidacy for membership is on life support.

“It makes no sense to continue talks with this government,” said Kati Piri, a European Parliament rapporteur on Turkey, in his reaction to the report.

How profoundly Erdogan fell short of meeting the requirements for keeping the doors ajar with European Union was embodied by Turkey’s utter disrespect of human rights.

The EU report laid out a comprehensive deterioration in democratic institutions and human rights, as well as in economic institutions and the market economy:

“More than 150,000 people were taken into custody during the state of emergency following the failed coup attempt in 2016. Among 78,000 who were arrested on terrorism-related charges, 50,000 are still in jail. As of December 2018, the total number of detainees in prison without an indictment or pending trial is 57,000. More than 20% of the total prison population is in prison for ‘terrorism-related’ charges, including journalists, political activists, lawyers and human rights defenders. These qualify easily as political prisoners. Allegations of torture and ill treatment remain a serious concern, while the handling of complaints is reported to be ineffective.

“As of January 2019, 1,546 lawyers have been prosecuted, including 274 who have been convicted of membership of a terrorist organisation. There are around 500 lawyers under arrest and awaiting trial. An estimated 170,000 internet sites are reportedly banned. Lack of transparency of media funding, the growing influence of political interests on editorial policies, the concentration of media ownership, the shrinking space for pluralism and restrictions on freedom of expression ‘remain of concern.’ As of November 2018, 1,008 companies across Turkey with a total asset value of [$9.8 billion] had been seized or had a trustee appointed.

“Turkish authorities have negatively influenced the functioning of markets, particularly by interfering with price formation and introducing constraints on the free use of foreign exchange. Concerns regarding the independence of key economic institutions have deepened.”

So on and so forth.

All of this points to a huge gap between Ankara and the European Union meaning that, unless Turkey makes a U-turn towards a parliamentary order with an independent rule of law, it will continue to drift away from the European Union. In other words, Erdogan and his power circles are the ones that stand between Turkey and the union.

What remains, then, will be — at best — a new direction, with the prospect of Turkey as an economically “privileged partner” — and nothing else.

All other talk about keeping Turkey in the EU membership perspective from now on will be a lip service, devoid of meaning. Let it be known. It is over.

Yavuz Baydar is a senior Turkish columnist, and news analyst. A founding member of the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) in Istanbul, he has been reporting on Turkey and monitoring media issues since 1980. A European Press Prize Laureate in 2014, he is also the winner of Germany's 'Journalistenpreis' in 2018. 

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.