Turkey and the EU: Democratization, Civil-Military Relations, and the Cyprus Issue

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This article analyzes Turkey's democratization along the EU accession process between 2004 and 2008. It argues that the current paralysis in the process of democratization in Turkey can widely be attributed to the EU's negotiation strategy. Contrary to the general understanding that the EU has been the chief source of democratic transformation in accession countries like Turkey, this paper claims that in the post-2004 period the process of democratization in Turkey has been hampered by its unstable relations with the EU. Recent developments show the limitations of the EU's strategy to push Turkey to further its reforms. The framing of negotiations without a clear timetable and membership perspective, the rise of discourses offering alternatives to membership for Turkey such as 'privileged partnership', the perception that some of the leading EU members oppose Turkey's membership, and finally the failure of the EU to resolve the Cyprus problem, have contributed to a decline of popular support for EU membership. Even the opening of accession negotiations is far from assuaging doubts regarding the EU's sincerity towards Turkey and preventing the decline of its credibility in Turkish public opinion. The Turkish governing elite is worried about the rise of an old anomaly in relations with the EU: the lack of a contractual basis, once seemingly resolved at the EU Summit in Helsinki in 1999 by the acceptance of Turkey as an official candidate for membership. This concern leads the governing elite to search for a reiteration of the EU's commitments to Turkey. In such a climate, the hands of pro-democratizing forces are extremely weakened to push for reforms on issues such as civil-military relations or minority problems, and thus have little recourse to support a revisionist attitude in delicate foreign policy issues such as the Cyprus problem. Our assessment is that contrary to the claims of some circles, including that of the governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party) whose leader, R.T. Erdogan stated that the 'Copenhagen criteria' would be turned into the 'Ankara criteria' and implemented in Turkey whether the prospect for the EU membership exists or not, (1) the process of democratization in Turkey is not sustainable. It is in danger of sliding backwards, as democratic forces, including the government, are far from being strong enough to govern it. The perception that the process of democratization is driven by an external actor, namely the EU, also makes the democratic forces extremely vulnerable to pressures of the hardliners, prioritizing security threats or fears of disintegration over and at times against democracy.

An Overview of the Present State of Affairs

On July 22 2007, general elections were held in Turkey. Unlike the previous elections held in November 2002, neither the current paralysis in Turkey-EU relations nor the political reforms required for EU membership constituted a significant point of debate. The parties, including the AK Party, which had enjoyed the overwhelming support of pro-reform forces in previous elections, were silent on the EU cause. A dramatic decline in support for EU membership highly contributed to this situation, coupled with sharp divisions within the governing elite over challenges that the EU accession process had revealed in Turkey's domestic politics and foreign policy, such as civil-military relations, the Kurdish problem and the Cyprus issue. Surveys held in late 2002, just before the groundbreaking reforms of August 2002 began (the abolition of capital punishment, the recognition of the property rights of minorities, and the extension of broadcasting in languages other than Turkish), showed that support for EU membership was more than 70%. (2)

This relatively high support started to decline from the early 2005 onwards, even though in December 2004 the EU had announced it would open accession negotiations with Turkey on October 3, 2005. …