Does Turkey continue to meet the political criteria for EU membership?

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Does Turkey continue to meet the political criteria for EU membership?

As every year by this time, the European Commission has delivered the enlargement package consisting of an enlargement strategy paper and accompanying progress reports for each enlargement country. For the first time the enlargement strategy highlights the importance of public administration reform (PAR) as a pillar in the enlargement process together with the rule of law and economic governance. As a former policy coordinator for PAR in DG Enlargement I can only welcome raising the profile of PAR. Horizontal reforms on all levels of the public administration aim at enhanced transparency, accountability and effectiveness. They promote overall good governance and are also conditions for improved administrative capacity in the acquis chapters (EU legal system).

One tool of better integrating PAR in the enlargement process was the establishment of special high-level PAR groups. In the past, PAR issues somehow fell outside the existing committee system where the Commission and the candidate country discussed the implementation of the acquis.

From now on special PAR groups are in the process of being established in all Western Balkans countries. The discussions in the special groups will be comprehensive and enable structured political discussions on key PAR issues.

However, for some reason no such group is envisaged for Turkey although it might seem that it badly needs one. Instead the Commission relies on the so-called Positive Agenda that was launched in 2012 and was supposed to compensate for the lack of progress in opening new chapters.

Let’s face it. One day when Turkey is ready, it will join the EU. Turkey is the biggest and most important candidate country, with about 76 million inhabitants and a territory of 784 000 km2. Economically it is already closely linked to the EU. It is EU’s sixth largest trading partner, while EU is Turkey’s largest.

Over 70 % of foreign direct investment in Turkey comes from the EU. Turkey will receive about € 4 454 million or over 50 % of the total national allocations to pre-accession financial assistance during 2014-2020.

Association negotiations with Turkey started in October 2005 and in the first years impressive progress was made. The Commission could write that Turkey continued to sufficiently meet the Copenhagen political criteria. They require stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and the protection of minorities.

The last year this was written was in 2011.This time the report states, as regards the political criteria, that the year “was marked once again by sharp contrasts”.  

Avoiding a clear assessment on Turkey contrasts with how other candidate countries are assessed in this year’s enlargement strategy paper. Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia all continue to sufficiently meet the political criteria – this even when the latter country is “at an impasse”.

Albania, which was granted candidate status last June, has made further progress towards fulfilling the political criteria. The Commission is also outspoken about the other Western Balkans countries, with the possible exception of Kosovo.

The section on Turkey in the enlargement strategy paper consists of a list of positive and negative statements without any clear-cut conclusion. However, when reading the progress report itself the reader gets a more fact-based view of the development in Turkey. In the following we’ll list some of the critical observations. There are plenty more.

The impression is that reforms have either stalled or backtracked during the authoritarian turn the country has taken during the last years. Turkey is still a democratic country which prides itself of conducting free presidential, parliamentary and local elections – but it does not emerge as a liberal democracy which lives up to European standards.

The once promising constitutional reform process – a condition for transforming Turkey from a state-centered to citizen-centered country and promoting local democracy and decentralization – has been on hold. 

Even when it comes to elections there are problems. The 10 % threshold for representation in parliament and municipal councils – the highest among Council of Europe member countries – is still in place. The wide scope of parliamentary immunity in relation to corruption charges remains unchanged.

The financing of political parties and election campaigns is not properly regulated. Neither was any progress made on improving parliamentary oversight of the executive and public expenditure.

The sections on central independent PAR institutions make disappointing reading. The Ombudsman institution that became operational in 2013 has missed an opportunity to apply best European practice such as the right to initiate investigations and to supervise judiciary administration.

The much older state audit, the Turkish Court of Accounts, is still involved in a legal dispute about its mandate.  In the meantime it seems paralyzed, with no performance audits being carried out and its regularity audit reports hardly being discussed in the parliament.

Among the most disturbing events last year was the reaction to the allegations of corruption against ministers. Instead of investigating the allegations, the government’s response was a significant number of reassignments, dismissals and detentions in the police force, civil service and the judiciary.

The amendments to the law regulating appointments of judges in Turkey transferred significant powers to the Ministry of Justice thus raising serious concerns over the independence of the judiciary. The backlog in the judiciary system is extremely high with no reliable indicators in place to measure the efficiency of the system.

Although the specially authorized anti-terror courts were abolished, the maximum detention on remand is still five years which is excessive if compared with practice in EU member states. The much praised settlement process to solve the Kurdish issue has not come very far besides allowing for the use of the Kurdish language in campaigning by political parties and in private education.

Right now, when writing this article, the whole peace process seems to be in danger because of Turkey’s equating P.K.K. with the Islamic State.

After this the readers – incl. the Turkish government – must ask themselves if Turkey really continues to meet the political criteria or if we only wish Turkey to do it.

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