The EU is back: Copenhagen Criteria Reloaded

International scrutiny of Turkey’s government on issues such as human rights, personal freedoms and liberties and rule of law has a long history. Amnesty International documented applications of torture to political detainees associated with the coup d’état as early as 1971. In the following decades, Europe started to play an important part in the international monitoring of Turkey. The role of Europe as a normative benchmark in this field increased substantially after 1987, when late President Turgut Özal recognized the right for individual applications and therefore enabled Turkish citizens to seek justice at the European Court of Justice. In 1993, the European Council adopted the Copenhagen Criteria, which, among other things, required all candidate countries to have “institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities.” Since then, Turkey’s relationship with the European Union has been growing closer, if not stronger all the time through the Customs Union treaty and through the accession talks. Inevitably, the European Commission and other EU institutions became a close monitor and assessor of democracy and the rule of law in Turkey.

Admittedly, Turkey has always been a country where the state is much too involved in citizens’ lives. Various fractions of society, including the Kurds, the Alevis, the left and the right, the pious, the seculars and the non-Muslims felt – at some point in time and often in highly dramatic and inhumane ways – the firm hand of the state. An authoritarian state is nothing new for people living in Turkey. Accordingly, western European countries particularly and in general the European Union have been continuous criticizers of the system. On all occasions the Turkish government insinuated that these criticisms were not objective and that Europeans should go about minding their own business.

While dismissing criticism, Turkey went through a number of reforms between 1999 and 2004 in order to fulfill the above-mentioned criteria with the aim of starting accession negotiations with the European Union. The first wave of reforms was undertaken by the coalition government headed by the late Bulent Ecevit and later by the bi-partisan work of the AKP and the CHP between 2002 and 2004. Finally in 2004, the European Commission recommended, albeit with reservations, that accession negotiations with Turkey finally be initiated.

Ironically, since accession negotiations began in 2005, democracy and the rule of law in Turkey have become increasingly questionable. Annual progress reports prepared by the EU Commission as well as the European Parliament’s resolution on those reports initially signaled this trend. Yet, at first these signals were not granted much attention. Following the economic crisis in 2001 and economic reforms made in its aftermath, Turkey enjoyed steady economic growth and a relative development that overshadowed any other issue. The narrative, which emphasized that political criteria- while granting their due importance- are not the only ones required by the accession process, gained prominence.

In recent years, this narrative has started to change as the European Union became increasingly wary of the deteriorating state of democracy and the rule of law in Turkey. Today, the most concerning issues include fundamental rights, freedom of expression, press freedom and the judiciary. The government is increasing its grip on power by imprisoning journalists, students, activists, local politicians (both elected and un-elected party officials) and anyone visibly expressing dissent of any form using the ever so broad counterterrorism law. In the meantime, pre-trial detention periods have effectively become a mechanism of punishment. Despite continued support for the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases due to their perceived contribution to civilian oversight of armed forces, in 2012 the European Parliament recognized the claims of hampered evidence for the first time.

The EU’s growing concern over the rule of law and democracy in Turkey is evidenced in the 2011 Enlargement Strategy, where Chapter 23 on “Judiciary and Fundamental Rights” and Chapter 24 on “Justice, Freedom and Security” were prioritized over all other chapters. Pursuant to this “new approach,” “working groups” were formed as a part of the Positive Agenda, introduced in 2012, in order tackle these two chapters, which are among eight chapters in total.

The international community at large and the European Union in particular are well aware of looming dangers for democracy and the rule of law in Turkey. However, make no mistake in seeing where the criticism lies. The ruling party is not blamed for bending the rules to increase its grip per se. It is instead blamed for not launching reforms that would diminish the fault lines entrenched in the legislative framework that enables governments to be authoritarian. Notwithstanding the ease of holding the ruling party responsible, this line of argumentation is much needed for consistent and effective opposition to the worsening state of democracy and the rule of law in the country.

Perhaps ironically, MIT economist Daron Acemoglu – an Armenian born inshowed in his seminal work that sustainable economic development is highly dependent on democratic institutions and the rule of law. The EU anchor has so far helped Turkey realize a number of political reforms to this end. It remains to be seen whether this will still be the case in the future. However, one thing is certain, whether it be Brussels or Shanghai[1] the source of momentum for reform remains strictly in Ankara.


[1] the prime minister recently voiced the idea of abandoning the EU bid to pursue membership to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization