As usual, the European Commission's progress report on Turkey and the associated – and politically more significant – ‘strategy paper’, both published yesterday (16 October), are a mix of positive and negative marks. Turkey is reprimanded for the excessive use of force during the Gezi protests and the deteriorating press freedoms, but is also commended for launching a peace process with its Kurdish autonomist movement.
While Turkey is no closer to joining the EU now than it was a year ago, negotiations will resume. The EU had already agreed to open a new chapter (Chapter 22, on regional policy) when the Gezi protests began in May. The EU postponed the talks to signal its profound unhappiness at Turkey’s reaction to its comments on the protests. Now that it has shown its discontent, the EU has good reason to open this chapter, as its content relates directly to the regionalisation and decentralisation aspects of Turkey’s negotiations with its Kurdish minority. There is also a strong case for opening the chapters on fundamental freedoms. This would allow the EU to reclaim some influence over the dynamics of Turkey’s democratisation.
Hence, even before the 2014 presidential election and the 2015 parliamentary election, realpolitik has prevailed over misgivings and vexations: Brussels, Berlin, Paris (and also Washington) will continue to deal with Turkey. But this should not be taken by Ankara as a resounding victory – quite the contrary.
As the governing party (AKP) knows well, the handling of the Gezi protests has left a sour taste with Turkey's allies. For one, when EU leaders and parliamentarians are harangued the way that they were in June by Turkish authorities, bitterness can be expected to linger. More importantly, the polarising language used by the Turkish government about the protests, which were overwhelmingly peaceful in nature, is clearly an oddity for a country negotiating accession to the EU. Some marginal groups may have used violence, but that does not justify denying an entire segment of the society their right of dissent or labelling peaceful activists as “terrorists” and “barbarians”. This aggravates the polarisation of an already badly divided society, as outlined by President Abdullah Gül in his address to parliament on 1 October.
Similarly, this language has hurt the country abroad. The prestige accrued by Turkey during the past decade has largely melted away. This is bad for a country deeply integrated to the EU with trade and investment flows and to NATO for security. It is equally bad for Turkey's diplomatic ambitions on the regional stage.
On substance, what is at stake is whether Turkey will create a domestic environment that nurtures a culture of open discussion, which is an indispensable requirement for any society intent on making the leap to a future of shared sovereignty in the EU.
Indeed, recent trends point to the opposite direction: less media freedom, less tolerance of dissent and no inclination towards inclusiveness. Journalists, civil society and business have been early victims. The democratisation package announced by the Turkish government on 30 September is certainly a step in the right direction, but it is too diffuse to address the deeper problems besetting democratic freedoms in Turkey. Tellingly, it has been announced at a time when columnists and television moderators are routinely being dismissed if they displease the powerful.
So, despite those reforms, liberal democracy remains the real loser from the Gezi protests. Europe's message to Turkey is – and should remain – that there is more to liberal democracy than just the ballot box.
In the short term, the main question for the EU is how much support to give to promoting tolerance and coexistence. The EU should invest in Turkey's future by, for example, vastly increasing educational programmes such as Erasmus and Leonardo, or supporting more projects through the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights and the European Endowment for Democracy. Conditions permitting, the EU could also liberalise visas for academics, students, cultural stakeholders and business people.
Not to do so would open the road to a more authoritarian democracy, with legitimate ballot-box results but no space for diversity and debate. This would take Turkey another step away from European values and further estrange it from its Western allies.