Turkey, EU on collision course over reform plans


Gareth Jones
ANKARA – Reuters

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), boosted by a big election win inJuly, has vowed to speed up plans to join the European Union, but its reluctance to push key reforms may put it on a collision course with Brussels.

The EU says Turkey must tackle article 301 of its penal code that makes it a crime to insult Turkish national identity and state institutions. The article has been used to prosecute writers and scholars, including Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk.

But Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has instead made clear its top priority is to overhaul Turkey’s military-inspired constitution, even if this means a negative annual progress report from the European Commission in November.

“We are not making our reforms to please Europeans and we will continue to do what is right for Turkey to bring more democracy, prosperity and better living standards,” AKP deputy leader Egemen Bağış told Reuters.

Another senior AKP official was more explicit.

“301 will not be amended now, the priority is drafting and enacting a new constitution. Then we can address the issues of the penal code that don’t comply with the new constitution, such as 301,” the official said, on condition of anonymity.

This unilateral approach worries Brussels and Turkish pro-EU analysts and human rights campaigners, who say it will strengthen opponents of Ankara’s EU bid such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and undermine Turkey’s friends in the bloc.

Jean-Christophe Filori, head of the Turkey desk in the European Commission’s enlargement section, said he was concerned that constitutional reform, though welcome, was becoming a substitute for progress in other pressing areas.

“A constitution takes a long time. The Turkish penal code and the (religious) foundations law can be addressed today. The constitutional process shouldn’t become the receptacle for all the reforms needed today, “Filori told a gathering at the European Parliament last week.

Turkey’s parliament, in recess until Oct. 1, could still approve the foundations law before November, but in its current form it falls well short of EU demands concerning restoration of property to the country’s minority Christian community.

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Among other demands, Brussels wants Turkey to open its ports to traffic from Cyprus,a country Ankara does not recognise. It also wants Ankara to open its border with Armenia and to reopen a seminary near Istanbul seen as vital to the long-term survival of Turkey’s tiny Greek Orthodox Christian community.

But analysts expect no movement on these sensitive issues, just slow progress on more technical aspects of the EU talks.

“The intentions are good, but we are seeing no action,” said Cengiz Aktar, an EU expert at Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University.

“A group of decision makers in the government is more than happy with the fact that EU negotiations started (in 2005) but they think just keeping the process alive is sufficient to keep foreign capital flowing in …This is pure brinkmanship.”

Turkey’s economy is booming but remains vulnerable because ofits heavy debt load. Turkey will lose some of its lustre if investors sense the EU process is in trouble, analysts say.

Turkey and its defenders say it has plenty of time to meet EU standards because it is not seen joining for many years.

Orhan Kemal Cengiz, head of the Human Rights Agenda Association, said government plans to change the constitution, though worthy, would sap the energy it is able to devote to tackling continued rights abuses such as torture.

The constitutional discussions have already ignited a row between the Islamist-rooted AK Party (AKP) and Turkey’s powerful secular elite over whether to lift a ban on the Muslim headscarf in universities. Secularists suspect the government of trying to erode the separation of state and religion,a claim it denies.

Cengiz said the AKP’s decision to insist on Abdullah Gül, anex-Islamist, becoming president would also hurt reforms.

“Electing Gül was a big mistake because the AKP will spend most of its energy fighting the secular state bureaucracy. The AKP has been the most powerful reformist government in Turkey because of its exclusion (by the secular elite). They are now trying to occupy rather than to change the system,”he said.

The AKP-dominated parliament elected Gül head of state in August over the protests of powerful army generals.

Underlying the AKP’s cooler stance on the EU is a growing belief that the bloc will never admit Muslim Turkey.

The leaders of France and Germany say Turkey has no place in the EU. Brussels has also failed to lift trade restrictions against Turkish Cypriots, while the internationally recognised Greek Cypriot government threatens to block Turkey’s EU bid.

“The EU could play a very positive role just by saying ‘these are our standards, if you meet them Turkey can join’. Instead we have endless debates about whether Turkey is European at all,” said Cengiz.