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Has Turkey's Europeanisation come to a halt?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: World Economic Forum
Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: World Economic Forum

A widely shared view today is that just as the accession negotiations with the EU opened in 2005 Turkey stopped reforming.

Coming on the heels of the decision to award Turkey EU candidate status, the period between 2001 and 2005 has come to be known as "the golden years" of Turkey-EU relations. It was during that time that Turkey adopted a string of impressive democratic reforms, part and parcel of what experts have called the country's "silent revolution". The reform effort kicked into high gear after the 2002 elections, which saw the newly-formed AKP (Justice and Development Party) form Turkey's first single-party government in more than twenty years.

In 2005, however, just as the accession negotiations with the EU opened, the mood began to change. Talks with the EU began to sputter, and the torrent of legislation pushed through parliament in previous years turned to a trickle. At the same time, Turkey experienced a wave of attacks against minorities, numerous attempts by radical nationalist groups to silence critical writers through the use of the Penal Code (art. 301), a number of assassinations (including one carried out by members of the Turkish gendarmerie in 2005 in the majority-Kurdish town of Semdinli), and a return to violence in the country's southeast. (See ESI's 2008 Briefing: Turkey's Dark Side: Party closures, conspiracies and the future of democracy.)

Amanda Paul, Analyst at the
European Policy Centre in Brussels

This has fed the belief that Turkey's reform process has lost momentum. As Olli Rehn told the European Parliament in 2009, "We have unfortunately witnessed a certain slowdown of political reforms in Turkey in recent years." "The reality is Turkey hasn't done much more than deliver lip service to the EU for a considerable length of time," Amanda Paul, an analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC), told EurActiv in November 2008. Other than circumscribing the power of the military, "an institution which [it] has always regarded as its most formidable political opponent," wrote Istanbul-based British author Gareth Jenkins in 2009, "the AKP has made virtually no attempt to address any of the concerns listed in the [EU] Progress Report … Their main concern is no longer to move the accession process forward; it is simply to keep it alive."

Turkey's transformation has not stopped, however. While fewer reforms have been passed, the process of political change, rather than "slowing down" after 2005, has shifted from a phase of legislating to a phase of partisan struggle over the meaning of the earlier reforms.

The first phase had been relatively smooth and strikingly consensual, with the government, the parliamentary opposition and the military leadership largely in agreement as to the goal of opening EU accession talks. However, even then the reforms carried out were incomplete. As observers warned (rightly), limits on free speech had not been altered – it was only the penalties that were made less harsh.

ChurchofSaintGeorge.jpg Church of Saint George
St George's church in Istanbul, home to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate

The second phase, however, has been deeply political and everything but smooth. Here, civil society, political parties and independent media – all of them empowered by the first wave of reforms – have become ever more important, while the EU's direct influence has become less apparent. sationEuropeanisation has turned into a domestic affair, fought over by domestic interests. Any serious reform takes time to take root: it involves not merely new legislation but changes in popular (and elite) attitudes. The EU reforms in Turkey were supposed to bring an end to a decades-long tradition of military tutelage. They were designed to encourage Turkish governments to tackle the many outstanding taboo issues of Turkish politics, including policies towards its Christian and Kurdish citizens. They required real shifts in power. They were bound to generate friction.

After 2005, Turkey's previous legislative reforms were put to a stress test. It was one thing for the government to affirm that authority had moved from the military to the civilian authorities – or to legislate greater tolerance for the Kurdish language – and quite another to defend such far-reaching changes in the face of increasingly determined opposition. It was one thing to assert that the parliament should control and the auditors audit military spending, and another to actually do it in the face of determined opposition from the army. It was one thing to declare Turkey a European democracy, and another to persecute military authorities prepared to carry out new interventions. As the Independent Commission on Turkey noted in a recent report, "from 2007 onwards, the ruling AKP had to fight off multiple challenges from an ad hoc coalition of old guard opponents including the military, parts of the judiciary and the main opposition Republican People's Party."

And yet, on some of the most important structural problems of Turkish democracy it was in the period since 2005 that real breakthroughs occurred. Yasemin Congar, editor in chief of the daily Taraf, told ESI in 2008 how the EU process empowered Turkey's reformers, both in government and in society:

"If Turkey wants to keep changing, and wants to keep becoming a more liberal and democratic society, we need that symbol of the EU

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