Fule's visit refreshes EU discussionsLast Update 19.11.2017
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule visited Ankara for two days of meetings and to emphasise support for judicial reforms that are crucial to the accession process.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule spent two days in Ankara last week meeting with top officials and civil society representatives and emphasising the importance of sustaining public trust in the reforms Turkey will implement in the accession process.
Fule met with EU Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, President Abdullah Gul, Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and President of the Constitutional Court Hasim Kilic. Discussions included recent developments in the country, EU-Turkey relations and the future of the accession process, according to Fule's press office.
The working group that was established by the European Commission and Turkey to work on Chapter 23 (judiciary and fundamental rights) convened June 17th with the attendance of Fule, Cavusoglu and Bozdag.
"I attach a great importance to engaging with Turkey on all political criteria-related issues which are so much at the centre of the accession process. An independent and impartial judiciary and the respect for fundamental rights are of a crucial significance for EU accession. They are at the very heart of the European values. Hence our strong insistence on continuing engagement with the Turkish partners on these matters," Fule said in his opening speech at the working group meeting.
"It is not about comparing the exact language of the particular pieces of the Turkish legislation with the existing EU laws. It is about ensuring that the basic principles and standards of the EU are followed in a way that safeguards the European values -- such as independence of judiciary and separation of powers," he added.
"It will never work unless the public gains confidence that the changes have a real impact on Turkish citizens; empowering them, providing them with more guarantees for their rights and freedoms. I am not talking about an academic exercise but about efforts where the overall goal is that the people feel that there has been a change," Fule said.
Following his meeting with 60 civil society representatives on June 17th, Fule issued a statement acknowledging the NGO sector's concerns about rapid legislative changes without consulting the EU. The Union has echoed the criticisms of activists regarding the strengthening of government control of the internet and the nation's top judicial body, claiming that such actions do not fall in line with EU accession criteria and undermine democracy.
Fule also said that in recent months the EU has become concerned about Turkey's commitment to European values, especially following the corruption allegations that emerged in December and the subsequent political interference into the judiciary.
The crackdown on the Gezi Park protests last summer and the government's harsh reaction to the corruption allegations, which resulted in the expulsion of thousands of police officers and judiciary members, are a source of concern for the EU.
"All this seems to have moved Turkey further away from European standards," Fule stated.
In response to a reporter's question about Fule's comments, Cavusoglu said Fule did not take a critical stance during their bilateral meetings.
"In all meetings he had with us, he praised the steps Turkey took even during the process of December 17th. Fule especially welcomed the practices about the democratisation packages as well as the action plan about the human rights convention's violations, and he also emphasised the importance of the fifth legislative package," Cavusoglu said.
"The year 2014 is the EU year for us," Cavusoglu added as he played host to Rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Andrea Rigoni. "We did all we had to do, and we will continue on that. However, in return, the EU should open the chapters. The EU should see the full part of the glass and should make efforts for filling together the empty part."
Chapter 23 and Chapter 24 (justice, freedom and security), which are cornerstones to align Turkey's democratic institutions with the EU, cannot be opened for now because of the political blockage from Cyprus.
In the meantime, the working group is preparing to meet the opening benchmarks, which foreign policy experts say is a demonstration of the EU's willingness to continue working with Turkey to move the process forward.
"It was a good opportunity to determine the dynamics and direction of our joint work on the reforms of the judiciary and on fundamental rights and freedoms," Fule told reporters. "I hope the coming weeks will allow [us] to translate today's discussions into concrete actions agreed on by both sides."
"The accession negotiations are the central engine of our relations. But they can only move forward in parallel with convincing progress in both the political reforms and on all Cyprus-related issues. Any setbacks under those two issues will raise doubts about Turkey's commitment to the EU," he added.
Zeynep Alemdar, director of the EU Centre at Istanbul's Okan University, said Fule's visit indicated the EU's renewed interest in Turkey.
"Turkey-EU relations have stalled since 2005, somewhat dramatically coinciding with the start of the accession negotiations, due to a variety of reasons stemming both from the EU's internal balances and those of Turkey's," Alemdar told SES Türkiye.
"Since mid-2013, developments such as France's lift of the veto on the opening up of the Regional Policy chapter, the signing of the Readmission Agreement and high-level visits between the parties signal a renewed interest on both sides. Yet, while it would have made headlines in Turkey when an enlargement commissioner would visit Ankara up until 2005, now we follow Fule's visit from his own tweets," she added.
Alemdar said Fule's focus on turning "positive agenda into positive and tangible results," and his assertion that Turkey's citizens should feel the changes brought about by the EU process are indications that the EU is determined to pursue Chapter 23.
Ayhan Kaya, director of the European Institute of Istanbul Bilgi University, said the European Commission is closely following political and societal developments in Turkey especially after the Gezi movement.
"It is also aware of the fact that the Turkish civil society is recently becoming more and more pro-European due to the political instability in and around Turkey," Kaya told SES Türkiye. "The EU is again the only solid project standing before the civil society."
Cigdem Nas, general secretary of the Istanbul-based Economic Development Foundation, said that although Fule's term as enlargement commissioner will end by November, his observations and experiences with Turkey will guide his successor.
"In this visit he was quite sceptical about recent developments in Turkey regarding freedom of expression and independence of the judiciary. He also attached great importance to the meeting he had with civil society organizations," Nas told SES Türkiye.
According to Nas, who was among the civil society representatives who met with Fule in Ankara, there is no immediate prospect of the formal opening of Chapter 23.
"However, Fule's message is for Turkey to keep up the reform process and not to deviate from the EU track despite the obstacles in the negotiation process. He advises Turks that EU values should be their guiding post and they should continue the reform process," she added.
"He also gives a reassurance to Turks who are suspicious of the EU's determination of accepting Turkey as a member state by underlying that the EU has no other agenda or alternative to accession of Turkey into the EU," Nas said. "In a way, Fule tells us that the key to membership is in Turkey’s hands."
Menekşe Tokyay, Ses Türkiye