Skip to main content

EU Awaits Turkey’s Reform Plan

EU officials privately have doubts about Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s reform plan and express concerns about freedom of the media.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan gestures during the Istanbul Conference of the Ministry For EU Affairs in Istanbul June 7, 2013. Turkey must investigate whether police used excessive force in a crackdown on days of anti-government demonstrations and hold those responsible to account, European Union enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele said on Friday. REUTERS/Osman Orsal (TURKEY - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS) - RTX10F76

“Turkey at a crossroads.” This expression has been used for so many years that it's now cliché. Yet, for Western observers of Turkey’s exciting — and troubling —   European Union venture, this “chronic” state remains the order of the day, reinforced further with a sentiment of fatigue.

Such is the climate that I saw prevailing in Brussels after a series of conversations there this week with EU diplomats and politicians, who spoke mostly “off the record” given the delicate state of affairs in the process.

EU decision-making bodies, seeking to dispel the ambiguity in Turkey’s membership talks, appear to have relaxed a bit after a critical threshold was passed. With Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) failing to garner enough support to rule Germany on its own, no obstacle remains to open the 22nd chapter in the accession talks, a move intended to revitalize the process.

“Had the CDU came to power alone, EU-Ankara ties would have plunged into deeper trouble,” a German politician said. “Now there will be a coalition and Germany, as a country loyal to the principle of pacta sunt servanda [agreements must kept], will raise no objections to the opening of a new chapter.”

But that’s hardly enough, as big question marks are lingering in Brussels. Will Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan unveil a “genuine” democracy package? Why is he dragging his feet? Will the package contain any remedy to the problem of free speech and the imprisonment of dozens of journalists and political dissidents, especially those jailed for collaborating with Kurdish rebels? Will the package give impetus to the peace process? Will the package amount to just a political tactic or the rejuvenation of a strategy? Will the Halki Orthodox Seminary be reopened?

The expectations are as big as the question marks. But so are the doubts. “The fact that the package is being delayed, that it is far from being transparent, that a single person — the prime minister — has a final, patronizing say does not help in reassuring us,” an EU official said. Previously, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) used “to look more collective, straightforward and inclusive, and to place importance on internal debate,” the official said. “Things look much different now. The accession process, however, requires a spirit of pluralism.”

The signals coming from Ankara are feeding the confusion. Turkey’s chief EU negotiator, Egemen Bagis, told the Daily Telegraph last week that Turkey “will probably never be an EU member.” Hot on his heels, Erdogan’s new adviser Yigit Bulut, who has been employing anti-EU rhetoric for several months, said, “Turkey should quickly rid itself from EU scenarios.” Such statements have added “fatigue” to the “crossroads” sentiment in Brussels.

“We read those seemingly strange statements in two ways,” the same EU source said. “The prime minister’s aides might believe that addressing the EU in such a defiant tone could be of some use. But no, it is not working and will not. Moreover, the contradictory signals coming from within the government demonstrate that a debate about ‘direction’ is crystallizing and heating up in the higher echelons in Ankara.”

According to liberals and greens in Brussels, time is running out for Erdogan to unveil the package, now that the threshold of the German elections has been passed.

“If this is a political tactic, Erdogan is aiming to kill two birds with one stone. If he unveils the package at the scheduled date, it will have positive repercussions on the progress report due in October. If the package does contain far-reaching reforms, the Kurdish settlement process will at least be not blocked. Certainly, the most important expectation concerns reports that the Halki Orthodox Seminary would be reopened. If this really happens, the storms blowing in both Brussels and Washington will ease. Also, one should keep in mind that Greece takes over the EU presidency in January. A move on Halki would ease Athens’ hand vis-a-vis public opinion at home and place it under pressure to be constructive on Turkey abroad,” another source told Al-Monitor.

Erdogan has upped expectations over the package, scheduled to be unveiled on Sept. 30, saying that it would contain “surprising” reforms. Will “the mountain give birth to a mouse,” as the Turkish saying goes, or will the package live up to the expectations? The answer remains uncertain.

Whatever the outcome, another problem is descending as a black cloud over Turkey-EU ties. There is a clear consensus among decision-makers in Brussels that the suppression of the Turkish media has been exacerbated through more sophisticated methods, that the climate of fear is spreading and that the punishment form has evolved from imprisonment to arbitrary sackings.

The state of alarm has been raised as the “carrot-stick” relationship between the government and media owners is adding new troubles to the already serious problems in the realm of free speech and media freedoms.

There is a hardened perception that, beyond laws restricting freedom of expression, media bosses are forfeiting media independence in the name of personal and business interests and under obvious government pressure. The issue is going to figure even more prominently in the 2013 progress report.

Westerners are watching with apprehension how the Turkish media are losing their function of providing news and information to the public, increasingly taken over by a pure and ever-hardening pro- or anti-government propaganda.

The views of people of various political leanings I talked to in Brussels boil down to these points: They say they are aware that solely Erdogan and his closest aides are behind the mounting pressure on the Turkish media and the increasing hardship of doing journalism, and that the issue is creating problems within the government itself. They say they have also taken note of the opposition’s failure to make any pro-freedom move or a declaration on the issue. The situation, they say, indicates that the political class in Turkey is shooting itself in the foot at a time when crucial accession talks are under way with the EU, underscoring that media independence is key in the context of freedoms, rights and equality. They say that no healthy public debate could take place with a gagged media, and that democracy would eventually stutter and choke. They demand that this mentality be abandoned.

The same poisonous climate also prevailed in Warsaw, where I traveled to from Brussels to attend the “Human Dimensions” summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In the media-related sessions, Turkey was the subject of harsh criticism, discussed in the same framework with the authoritarian states of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Could that be a sufficient stimulus for Ankara, which stands out among many OSCE members as a candidate for EU membership?

The most constructive criticism came from a representative of Freedom House: "The technical shortcomings in Turkey’s media legislation and institutions — including the anti-terror laws, the process of allowing holding companies with media interests to bid on public tenders and regulations affecting the independence of the state broadcaster — must be remedied. But it is equally critical that the government cease privately intimidating and publicly denouncing critics in a way that increases the polarization and division in Turkish society." 

Yavuz Baydar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1979, he has been a radio reporter, news presenter, producer, TV host, foreign correspondent, debater and, in recent years, a news ombudsmen for the daily Sabah. His opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language daily Today's Zaman.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in

Turkey Briefing Turkey Briefing

Turkey Briefing

Top Turkey stories in your inbox each week

Trend Reports

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (4th R) attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (3rd L) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on February 22, 2019. (Photo by HOW HWEE YOUNG / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read HOW HWEE YOUNG/AFP via Getty Images)

From roads to routers: The future of China-Middle East connectivity

A general view shows the solar plant in Uyayna, north of Riyadh, on March 29, 2018. - On March 27, Saudi announced a deal with Japan's SoftBank to build the world's biggest solar plant. (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP) (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

Regulations on Middle East renewable energy industry starting to take shape

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial