MESOP NEWS : Poll reveals need for EU-Turkey co-operation / Joost Lagendijk


New research suggests that Turkish citizens are sceptical of the EU, highlighting the need for further efforts to boost EU-Turkey relations.

By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul — 13/08/14  – The survey by the Pew Research Centre showed that a quarter of respondents have a favourable view of the EU, while 66 percent have negative opinions toward the EU. A decade ago, before the accession talks started, 58 percent of Turkish citizens had a favourable view of the EU, while the favourability of the EU fell to 27 percent in 2007 and has not improved since.

The poll showed that 53 percent of Turkish citizens favour joining the EU, while only 37 percent disagree. Those who support the EU membership were 68 percent in 2005, and this rate has declined steadily to reach 54 percent in 2010.

Sinem Acikmese, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, said a perceived slowdown in reforms has created a negative impact on public perceptions. “These signs are apparent in the hesitancy to further proceed with the democratic reform process as well as in the negative discourses of Turkish policy-makers offering alternatives to the EU as in the case of Shanghai Co-operation Organisation or defining the EU as a miserable organisation,” Acikmese told SES Türkiye. Acikmese added that the EU side also contributed to the decline of EU favourability among Turkish citizens, due to the perceived lack of commitment from the EU. Only one negotiating chapter has been closed, while only 14 are currently open for discussion.

The latest chapter that was opened to the negotiations was Regional Policy and Co-ordination of Structural Instruments in November. “Also, the anti-Turkish accession campaigns mostly in France and Germany have a direct impact on the idea in Turkey that whatever we do, the EU will not let us in,” she said.

The government has repeatedly insisted that it is fully committed to EU membership. In the presidential vision document he announced in Istanbul in July, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to prioritise EU-Turkey accession negotiations if he is elected president.

“We move forward with our determination to give necessary momentum to Turkey-EU accession negotiations. Now, Italy assumes the rotating EU presidency. We are hopeful. I wish that we get the chance to open two or three chapters. Turkey will go on its reform process and will assume its responsibilities,” Erdogan said. The Pew survey results are consistent with a survey conducted by Kadir Has University in November 2013, which revealed that 77.2 percent of Turkish citizens believe that the EU has not been a trustworthy organisation, while only 38.4 percent of the respondents opposed Turkey’s EU membership.

“Thus, the fact that Turkish people still see a relative value in joining the EU with the expectations towards economic and democratic well-being, as well as the tangible assets such as the free movement, makes one hope for a change in near future for a better direction in Turkey-EU relations,” Acikmese said. Public frustration with the slow pace of accession is evident. People like Emre Kilic, a young adult living in Ayvalik, said he has gradually lost hope with the EU. “I can understand that the EU has its own problems, like unemployment, financial crisis, and illegal immigration from crisis regions. And when they follow the current debates in Turkey that show a decline in democratic maturity, they may decide to postpone this accession incentive for more years. But, at the end of the day, Turkish people have begun moving away from their EU dreams and decreased their support for democratic reforms in the country,” Kilic told SES Türkiye.

But people like Hulya Oztekin, a cleaning lady in Istanbul, question the need to depend on foreign actors while the current government in Turkey puts the country on a path to self-sufficiency.

“I think the EU membership was acceptable a decade ago when Turkey was not so powerful like today. Our economy was weak at those times,” Oztekin told SES Türkiye. “But, with all the reforms Turkey has made since, the country’s star is shining around the world. Hopefully, they need us more than we need them.” According to Joost Lagendijk, a former co-chairman of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Commission, the gradual loss of popularity of the EU among Turkish citizens is not surprising, considering the lack of positive news about Turkey-EU relations in recent years. “The EU has shown an alarming level of indifference and lack of commitment while at the same time leading politicians in Turkey have made it clear that, despite positive rhetoric, they are not willing to continue with reforms that are necessary to bring Turkey closer to the EU,” Lagendijk told SES Türkiye.

“To make matters even worse, the Turkish prime minister has repeatedly suggested Turkey does not need the EU anymore and Turkey might opt for other alliances.” Taking mixed messages into account, Lagendijk said the results of the Pew survey are not terribly alarming.

“Just imagine how perception and support could have looked like if only both sides had done their utmost to make progress,” he added.Following the new term of European Parliament and the new European Commission in November, things will be much clearer for Turkey to see whether the new composition of the European bodies wants to break the current deadlock. “The same goes for the new Turkish government after the election of Prime Minister Erdogan as president,” Lagendijk said. Lagendijk also said that if there is political will on both sides for a serious restart, there are some priority areas that should be taken into consideration to improve the relationship.

“The EU should finalise the revision of its visa policy for Turkish citizens as quickly as possible, strengthen EU-Turkey educational co-operation in the Erasmus program and give Turkey a special status in free-trade negotiations, especially the current one with the US. The new Turkish government should clearly and publicly recommit itself to accession-related reforms on economic and rule-of-law issues,” he added.