EU aided projects help to modernise Turkey
Despite a political hiccup, EU-funded civil society and reform projects are growing -- as is Turks' participation.
By Ayhan Simsek for SES Türkiye -- 06/03/12
Turkey's EU membership process is entering a difficult period, with Cyprus assuming the EU rotating presidency in July. Due to the decades-long Cyprus problem and French President Nicolas Sarkozy's opposition to Turkey's EU membership, the political process has almost come to a halt several times.
Turkey's EU bid has been mired by several issues. [Reuters]
More than 12,000 Turkish students have studied at universities across Europe under the EU's Erasmus Programme. [EU]
No matter how the current stalemate in political process evolves, these projects are bringing Turkey and Europe closer, Gazi University Associate Professor Nail Alkan said. [Reuters]
But the last few years have seen a remarkable change in Turkey's EU membership process. In the past, high-level political discussions dominated, but now the initiative is going beyond the sphere of political elites. NGOs, universities, ordinary Turks and particularly the youth, are becoming active participants.
Last year, around 43,000 youths participated in EU youth and education programmes, visiting European cities for various projects.
Hasan Jabbarov participated in a number of European Voluntary Service (EVS) programmes in Europe. Now he is working for the Turkish Ex-EVS Association, preparing projects and assisting with applications.
"With these programmes, Turkish and European students are coming together for a common goal. They are working together, sharing and exchanging ideas. This facilitates breaking misunderstandings and prejudices," he told SES Türkiye.
Since 2003, hundreds of Turkish university students have taken courses at European universities, thanks to the EU's Erasmus Programme. In the early years of the programme, around 1,000 Turkish students went to Europe for a couple of semesters. Last year this number was 12,000.
Like Erasmus, the Jean Monnet Scholarship Programme is also popular. It is focused on rearing a new generation of Turkish decision-makers. So far, more than 1,300 Turkish undergraduates and professionals have completed their EU-specific graduate studies in Europe under the Jean Monnet Scholarship Programme. This year 130 students will be supported.
"During their studies in Europe, Jean Monnet students focus on the harmonisation of policies and laws to European standards. Upon returning to Turkey, they continue their career, as EU experts on their respective fields, with extensive technical information," Gökşen Çalışkan, a former Jean Monnet student told SES Türkiye.
Following her graduate study at the City University in London, Gökşen works in the Turkish private sector, as an expert on communication and internet governance policies.
She said that Jean Monnet is an extremely helpful program in bringing Turkey and Europe closer.
"Today, Turkey's EU relations suffer a lot from cultural prejudices. The programmes offer the opportunity for Turkish students to share social life with their European friends and colleagues, to build a common understanding."
The EU's annual aid to Turkey will reach 900m euros this year, a significant source to be used for a wide range of grant programmes -- from democratisation and human rights to environmental and developmental projects.
Turkey will have received around 4.9 billion euros by the end of next year for 2007-2013.
Despite a significant increase in pre-accession aid, critics say this is still low, compared with former candidate countries that receive billions of euros annually before membership.
According to EU expert Hüseyin Aktürk, while the aid is not a significant amount compared with Turkey's huge economy and population, the projects it has funded projects have made a huge impact in Turkey's transformation.
"This process has created a new class of bureaucrats in Turkish bureaucracy," Akturk told SES Türkiye. "Now we have hundreds of 'Eurocrats' in Turkish ministries, institutions, who are experts on the EU policies and standards, and they are making a positive impact in bringing Turkey's rules and standards closer to the EU's."
"Turkey's EU process is not only a foreign policy matter. It is also a domestic matter, it is our government's priority," Turkey's EU Minister Egemen Bağış told SETimes.
"We continue our reform projects, not only because they are demanded by the EU, but because they are in the interest of Turkish people. We are happy to see growing participation by all social actors, by our ordinary citizens," he said.
According to Bağış, more than 2 million Turkish and European citizens have participated in the seminars and trainings, as part of the EU-funded civil society and dialogue projects. With the additional funding, Turkey's EU Ministry is trying to further expand awareness on the issues of the EU, the reform process, grant opportunities and dialogue programmes through new projects.
"In order to better inform our citizens on the EU process we have developed various projects. These projects have reached all along the line in Turkey, from our largest provinces to our smallest villages," the minister said.
Turning to the Web
With EU funds and grant programmes, Turkish civil society organisations have gained a significant number of EU and fundraising experts, as well as access to national and international network.
Internet site ab-ilan.com, directed by Aktürk, has become a forum for these experts to follow new grant announcements and seek international and national personnel for their projects.
"These grant programmes are more than funding. With them, Turkish institutions and NGOs have gained expertise, work discipline which has lead to the further development of institutional capacities. More and more NGOs now have experienced personnel, institutional capacity to carry on projects, with international partners, which really make a difference on the ground."
According to Aktürk, ab-ilan.com is a good example of the changing character of Turkey's EU process.
"Turkey's EU process seems to be owned by a wider audience of social actors, and their interest is not limited with high-level political issues. They are more interested in the domestic reform process, EU-funded projects. And that has made ab-ilan.com the most popular site in Turkey that focuses on the EU."
Associate Professor Nail Alkan of Gazi University is an EU expert, who often visits Anatolia. He says EU-funded projects have raised awareness and dynamism in the local level, and introduced solutions to many problems under the leadership of NGOs. The whole transformation, according to him, resembles "a silent revolution".
"EU and Turkey's political relations seem to be proceeding into a crisis. But what I have experienced at the local level is promising," he told SES Türkiye.
"Public opinion polls show that support for EU membership is decreasing. But this is mainly because of the perception of double standards -- it is a reaction to some EU states and leaders who block Turkey's process. But public interest for the EU process, democratic reforms, exchanges with European counterparts and applications for EU-funded projects are growing," Alkan said.
Alkan is impressed by the enthusiasm of local authorities, academics, NGO representatives and particularly students in various Anatolian cities, who want to learn more about various aspects of the EU.
"There is a growing interest in preparing projects with European partners in various fields, such as climate change, environment, tourism, arts and culture. They are coming up with innovative ideas," he said.
"I believe all these programmes and projects are making a real difference on the ground. No matter how the current stalemate in political process evolves, these projects are bringing Turkey and Europe closer."