2013-09-27

Experts: Both sides can contribute to recharging EU process

Experts say the government and EU officials must work together to rejuvenate the accession process.

By Menekse Tokyay for Southeast European Times in Istanbul -- 27/09/13

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Support among Turkey's citizens to join the European Union has diminished to its lowest point, according to a new survey, and experts said recharging the stalled EU accession process will take effort by both the government and EU officials.

  • A recent survey found declining support for EU membership among Turkey's citizens. [AFP]

    A recent survey found declining support for EU membership among Turkey's citizens. [AFP]

The Transatlantic Trends 2013 public opinion survey, which has measured public opinion in 11 EU countries, Turkey and the United States for 12 years, revealed that 44 percent of Turkey's citizens favoured EU membership, compared to 73 percent in 2004 and 48 percent last year. The number of those who oppose joining the EU increased from 29 percent to 34 percent since last year. The survey was released by the German Marshall Fund.

The survey found that 20 percent of Europeans favour Turkey’s EU membership while 33 percent are opposed.

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund's Ankara office, told SES Türkiye that the power of context has much to do with the survey results.

"We can talk about a mutual frustration in EU-Turkey relations due to unfulfilled expectations that leads to a cooling towards each other," Unluhisarcikli said, adding that there is also an accession process fatigue in Turkey that has been seen in other candidate countries.

The accession negotiations opened in 2005, and so far only the science and research chapter -- one of 35 EU accession chapters -- has been closed. The brutal police response to the Gezi Park protests this past summer drew criticism from within the EU, which followed by delaying the opening of a long-awaited chapter on regional policies until the next progress report on Turkey is released in October.

"The European public is so preoccupied with the internal challenges of the Union that accession is not even on their agenda. Besides that, the response of the Turkish government to the protests during this summer was not very helpful for Turkey’s image in Europe," Unluhisarcikli said.

The stalemate in the accession process is the source of considerable frustration among the nation's citizens.

Burak Oncu, 42, an employee at a call centre in Istanbul, said the EU has been gaining time in delaying Turkey’s membership, while the government does not attach as much importance to the bid as it did in the beginning.

"Each day, they are putting forward much more criteria on the table and the Turkish public has long been witnessing that poorer countries, whom are less ready for membership, are admitted to the club, while Turkey has been waiting at the front door for more than half century," Oncu told SES Türkiye.

Lisel Hintz, a doctoral fellow at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies who has extensively researched Turkey’s EU accession process, agreed.

"Both among government officials and across much of the Turkish population in general, there is an overall disillusionment with the EU and its behaviour throughout negotiations since Turkey's recognition as a candidate for full membership in 1999," Hintz told SES Türkiye.

Hintz added that there is a pervasive sense that the EU is not sincerely committed to Turkey's accession and that the EU applies a double standard to Turkey as a Muslim country, a sense heightened by Croatia's recent accession.

"Additionally, the EU's financial woes and persistent infighting that coincide with a period of economic growth for Turkey have made many citizens question what exactly the value of EU membership would be," Hintz said.

Experts say there are important steps both sides could take in order to stop Turkey’s gradual alienation from the EU.

"The EU and European governments could give Turkey a clearer perspective for full membership and take steps toward this direction," Unluhisarcikli said. "One example in this regard would be visa facilitation. Turkey, on the other hand, could revitalize efforts to improve democracy. Improving media freedom is one example in this regard. Both sides could also create opportunities for civil society dialogue. Political leaders on both sides could develop a more positive language about the EU-Turkey relations."

Hintz said government officials can help reinvigorate the process and rekindle public support by demonstrating genuine, unified commitment and by staying on message.

"Prime Minister Erdogan's reference to potential interest in being a member of the Shanghai Five and the seeming disparity in enthusiasm for EU membership between Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul provide reasons to doubt such a commitment," she said.

In his Eid message, Gul, an ardent supporter of the EU accession process, called for a focus on the EU agenda and spoke of abandoning political polarisation in the country in order to offer a chance to revive the reform process.

Hintz said successfully rejuvenating the public's belief in the legitimacy of the accession process will require government officials -- particularly the EU minister -- to support the EU's liberal democratic values such as freedom of expression and assembly.

"Among many examples, Minister for EU Affairs Egemen Bagis's characterisation of those entering Gezi Park as terrorists in mid-June gives little credibility to arguments that the ruling party is in fact committed to protecting and promoting such values," Hintz said, adding that the government also needs to broadcast a clear public message specifically outlining how citizens stand to benefit from EU membership.

"The current sense of disillusionment could possibly be ameliorated by conveying information regarding the tangible benefits and increased rights and freedoms membership could offer," Hintz said.

What steps should officials in Turkey take to raise the level of support for EU accession? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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