The Misuse of the EU Accession Process and Civil Society

Though historically used as an instrument to maintain power, EU accession process has found new avenues of political pursuits under Erdogan’s leadership.

The Istanbul Modern, one of the most popular private museums in Turkey, was inaugurated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in December 2004. The date of the hasty inauguration suspiciously coincided with European Union’s final decision meeting that would officially launch Turkey’s full accession process into the Union. The media heavily covered the inauguration, applauding Erdogan’s interest and support towards the arts, specifically towards the contemporary arts, a first for a Turkish government. The ruling party enjoyed a political “coup de grâce”; Istanbul Modern turned out to be the perfect propaganda material for the benefit of the West and the EU. But it was most effective among the secularists and the modernists of Turkey; it alleviated their fears regarding Erdogan’s real agenda as a devout Muslim.

Six years down the road, in January 2011, Erdogan did not hesitate to call a gigantic statue, still under construction in Turkey’s eastern province Kars, “monstrous”. Erdogan publicly announced that the statue created by a Turkish sculptor Mehmet Aksoy and named Statue of Humanity, “would not stay up much longer”. Despite the fact that Aksoy fought a legal battle against immediate execution of Erdogan’s exposition, in April 2011, the monument was fully demolished by AKP governed Kars municipality.

As a leader championing Turkey’s EU accession, especially during his early years in power, such a paradox is yet another example of Erdogan’s undue exploitation of Westernism to maintain his power.

It is a fact that Turkey’s ruling elites exercise power to ensure their cultural and moral leadership, through misuse, if not abuse, of the European Integration Process and the Copenhagen criteria. Yet the conservative and pro-Islam Justice and Development Party (AKP) is set to be the most striking example of such a political and governing entity. AKP has approached the EU accession process in a very instrumental and pragmatic fashion compared to its counterparts in Turkish political history.

“Civil society” has become one of the most commonly used terms in the social scientific discourse that deals with the social, political and economic transformation of Turkey throughout the EU accession process. Nevertheless, it is wrong to take this term in a positive light, for it contains not only the democratic discourse, but also subjective religious and cultural expressions. An influential group of social scientists argue that the governing party practices subtle discrimination amongst civil society organizations to strengthen its cultural and moral leadership. Groups and organizations that share ideological and political similarities with AKP are supported actively by the government, as observed in the case for the conservative Turkish charity “Deniz Feneri” (meaning “lighthouse” in Turkish), whose representatives are AKP members organized among the Turkish population in Germany. Critics accuse AKP of protecting the accomplices in the Lighthouse e.V. Affair -the biggest charity corruption case in Germany’s history- and using the embezzled funds to support AKP’s political aims in Turkey. The main opposition party, CHP, argues that the funds were utilized to support the media close to the government. In the past months, hundreds of opposing politicians, activists and journalists have been arrested by the police in alleged terror plots, which is actually claimed to be an effective method to repress the media.

It is important to note that the only way to improve the relations between Turkey and the European Union is to overcome the hegemony of culturalist, civilizational, moralist and religious discourse, prevalent not only within Turkey but also within the EU. Yet the concept of “civil society” has been under an increasing wave of abuse since the EU accession process has been initiated. AKP has been utilizing the EU process as a most convenient instrument to amplify its dominance, and pursuing its political agenda in a slow but steady manner; turning the process into a tool for authoritarian power and gaining maneuvering room in domestic politics.

One of the most striking official statements of Erdogan, recorded in January 2008, demonstrates the case in point: “We adopted neither the science nor the art of the West. We have unfortunately adopted the immorality of the West, contrary to our own values”.

About Can Büyükbay

PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science Center for Comparative & International Studies, University of Zurich