Thursday, March 15, 2007

EU’s soft power is defunct in Turkey

From Turquie Européenne:

At the end of last week, the think tank where I work in Brussels — the European Policy Centre — held a breakfast meeting with Turkey’s chief negotiator for the EU, Ali Babacan, at which he gave a presentation on “Turkey and the EU: Relations, Negotiations and Challenges Ahead.”

This was the first time I had heard Babacan speak in English for quite some time and I was impressed. He delivered an impressive and information-packed speech to a captivated audience of some 200 people. He then went on to answer numerous questions on many different issues, including regional development, climate change, foreign policy, the economy and relations with Cyprus. Could it be that he is being groomed to be the next foreign minister? I believe that it is a real possibility.

Babacan’s message was very clear — what happened in December happened and there is nothing anybody can do about it now, but the effects of the EU decision to freeze eight negotiating chapters continue to be felt in Turkey and recovery is not guaranteed. Although Babacan emphasized that Turkey would never be the party walking away from the negotiating table, he also said that the EU’s famous “soft power” no longer had any major effect in the country.

To my mind this is not really surprising given that a number of member states continue to repeat like parrots that Turkey’s negotiations are open ended, that alternatives should also be looked at. As Olli Rehn, European commissioner for enlargement, has rightly pointed out on many occasions, these people are doing more harm than good as they are creating a negative wave in Turkey towards the EU which has affected the relationship and the pace of reform. It is also particularly pointless when you bear in mind that in at least one member state — France — Turkish accession will face a referendum, leaving the final decision, for all intents and purposes, up to the citizens. Indeed, there are no longer any guaranteed places at the EU table given that after the accession of Croatia — probably in 2009 — all countries who aspire to be members of the club will have to face a referendum in at least France. Babacan emphasized that Turkey still had many, many reforms to do in many areas and that numerous reforms, already carried out, still needed to be implemented. He added that the only way forward was for the reform process to be owned by the people.

The AK Party aspires to remove all “taboos” from Turkish society. This was one of Erdoğan’s goals when he created the party. The time he spent in jail during his time as mayor of Istanbul for reciting a poem gave him a taste of Turkish justice and more particularly the stranglehold on freedom of expression. Pressure for change on such sensitive issues very much linked to Turkey’s nationalistic past has to come from within. Although it is totally unacceptable to see academics, journalists, writers and others marched back and forth to the courthouse, the necessity for change has to come from the hearts of the Turkish people and not the EU or the US.

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