A full Turkey membership would have a major impact on the EU domestic order and foreign standing. (Reuters/Francois Lenoir)
A full Turkey membership would have a major impact on the EU domestic order and foreign standing. (Reuters/Francois Lenoir)

Turkey’s reform fatigue, the EU’s enlargement fatigue, and press freedom

“The European Commission expressed serious concern about developments in the area of rule of law and fundamental rights (in Turkey).” It is progress report season in Brussels. As every year in early October, the commissioner in charge of enlargement unveils documents that judge the progress of all candidate countries in adopting European Union (EU) laws and standards, and Turkey is at the forefront.

Turkey dwarfs the other, smaller candidates (Macedonia, Montenegro, etc.) due to its demographic and economic weight, its crucial geopolitical location, and its political significance. A full Turkey membership would have a major impact on the EU domestic order and foreign standing.

Besides its assessment of Turkey’s economic reforms, the report provides a detailed analysis of Turkey’s compliance with the so-called Copenhagen criteria of political stability, democracy, and human rights. Last year’s repression of the Gezi Park movement and the alleged rise of authoritarianism under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been a major concern in Brussels. And in such context press freedom has become a key barometer of the general state of democracy and human rights in the country.

The tone of the report is diplomatic, reflecting the will of the EU to engage with Ankara after years of recriminations and procrastination. The authors acknowledge that certain advances have been made, in particular the adoption in March of an Action Plan for the Prevention of Violations of the European Convention on Human Rights. It salutes the positive role played by the Constitutional Court, which quashed a number of ill-advised governmental measures, in particular a ban on accessing YouTube, and highlighted “the mishandling of the investigations and subsequent trials in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases.” It welcomes the abolition of Article 10 of the Anti-Terror Law, which led to a reduction–although deemed insufficient–of pretrial detention.

However, it also bluntly expresses its “serious concern” at a long list of failings: “legislation that further limited freedom of expression, including the law on Internet;” “the blanket bans on YouTube and Twitter;” the fact that the “Action Plan does not envisage revision of all relevant provisions of the Anti-terror Law or of the Criminal Code that have been used to limit freedom of expression.”

The report also underlines institutional failings that impact the press: the flawed separation of powers and lack of an adequate system of checks and balances; the politicization of the judiciary and of the Radio and TV Supreme Council; biased coverage by the state broadcaster; and the free rein and near total impunity granted to the National Intelligence Service in matters of surveillance and investigations.

In a clear reference to the pillorying of dissident voices by President Erdoğan, the European Commission also denounced that “intimidating statements by politicians and cases launched against critical journalists, combined with the ownership structure of the media sector, lead to widespread self-censorship by media owners and journalists, as well as sacking of journalists.”

A few hours after its release, the progress report was described as “objective and balanced” by Turkish Minister of European Affairs Volkan Bozkir, a signal aimed at confirming the strategic engagement with the EU that the ministry of foreign relations unveiled in September. The pressures Turkey faces, in particular due to the Iraq and Syrian crises, have made its EU partnership more crucial than ever.

In Brussels, however, the prospects for speedier negotiations are not rosy. The incoming president of the European Commission, the Christian Democratic former prime minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker, announced that no new member state would be accepted during his five-year term. He has offered the enlargement portfolio to a commissioner from Austria, one of the most enlargement-skeptic countries in Europe.

Although some observers suggested that enlargement fatigue would in fact freeze substantive progress, others said there is more space for maneuvering a renewed EU-Turkish dialogue. Betting on the report’s recommendation that the chapters on fundamental rights, justice, and freedom be opened to negotiation, the partisans of Turkey’s accession as well as liberal circles in Brussels intend to use the process to combat Turkey’s reform fatigue.

They know that the road will be long, bumpy and with no assurance of success, but

as the former EU ambassador in Ankara, Marc Pierini, recently stated, “Unless there is a fast and clear return to a better rule of law architecture, Turkey’s accession process will remain a pro-forma operation for the time being. Looking from a different angle, one could say there is currently an incompatibility of sorts between Turkey’s domestic politics (and political tactics) and its EU ambitions, although the latter figure more prominently than ever in the government’s narrative.”

The report’s recommendations provide a roadmap to get out of the current cul de sac.