Analysts say ailing relations with West stumbling block to AK Party’s election promises

The recent slowdown in Turkey’s accession to the EU and its deteriorating image in the eyes of the West stand between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) realizing its aim to prioritize and further relations with EU countries and trans-Atlantic institutions.

This has prompted analysts to suggest that Turkey would need a massive effort to realize the ambitions set out in the AK Party’s manifesto.

In the manifesto announced by the AK Party on April 19, the party, underlining that the EU and trans-Atlantic relations will continue to remain a priority in Turkey’s foreign policy, committed to deepen and strengthen its relations with Western countries. The party also pledged to further the reforms required for Turkey’s accession to the EU.

Speaking to Sunday’s Zaman, Cengiz Aktar, an expert on European politics, said the pledges made by the AK Party’s election manifesto contradict its actions, making its election promises for what would be a fourth consecutive government term not worthy of close attention.

“Actions speak louder than words,” said Aktar. “There are plenty of flashy words in the [party’s] manifesto, but what was pledged in the manifesto and what has been done [by the AK Party] are like black and white.

“Turkey has been rapidly drifting away from the EU. What’s more dramatic is the fact that the other parties did not say much about their projection for Turkey’s EU accession,” added Aktar.

In 2005, Turkey and the EU began accession talks on 35 negotiating chapters, but there has been very little progress since, amid opposition to Turkish membership in some EU countries, including France, and the unresolved Cyprus dispute. The EU has opened 14 chapters with Turkey so far, with only one chapter successfully closed, while 17 chapters still remain blocked.

The latest progress report of the European Parliament (EP) in January featured criticisms to the dismay of Turkey.

A statement issued alongside the report said: “The rule of law and the respect for fundamental freedoms form the core of the EU negotiation process. In this respect, Turkey currently does not meet the expectations that we have for an EU candidate country. The concerns of the European Parliament focus on the freedom of speech and the independence of the judiciary — both essential components of an open democracy.”

The statement also said that these issues are “tainting relations with Turkey,” preventing Turkey’s negotiation process with the EU from moving forward.

The EU and Turkey have also clashed over the targeting of Turkey’s best-selling daily and a popular TV channel in a government-backed investigation in December 2014.

In the investigation, the editor-in-chief of the Zaman daily, Ekrem Dumanli, was briefly detained, but Samanyolu TV channel CEO Hidayet Karaca still remains behind bars with no indictment yet prepared against him.

After receiving criticism from Brussels over the media crackdown in Turkey, Erdogan replied by saying, “Keep your views to yourself.”

He had also said that Turkey did not care whether the EU allows it into the union.

Turkey’s position in NATO has also been debated by some media outlets in Western countries, which often depicts Turkey as a country that has drifted away from the alliance.

A New York Times editorial published in March said Turkey’s commitment to the alliance has never seemed quotmore ambivalent than it does now.”

The newspaper said: “Add the fact that Turkey under Mr. Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian, and it becomes apparent that the country is drifting away from an alliance whose treaty says it is ‘founded on the principles of democracy’ as much as defines.”

Ankara was specifically accused of remaining oblivious to the flow of foreign fighters through Turkey into Syria to join the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Turkey rejects these criticisms, saying it is hard to control its porous borders and that Western countries should do a better job in flagging the potential Syria-bound fighters.

In February, Turkey and the US signed a deal to train and equip more than 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels on Turkish territory, a program Turkey views as a first step to prepare the rebels against forces loyal to the Syrian regime. Washington, however, says the program is largely designed as part of a fight against ISIL, yet the rebels can use the weapons provided against Syrian forces for defensive purposes.

Final date for EU visa liberalization revised in election manifesto

In the 2015 election manifesto, the AK Party envisages that Turkey will have visa liberalization with the EU in three years, despite the fact that nearly a year ago Foreign Minister Mevlut cavuioilu said the EU and Turkey would abolish visa requirements in three years.

Speaking to Sunday’s Zaman, Murat Bilhan, vice chairman of the Turkish-Asian Center for Strategic Studies (TASAM), said he does not expect the EU to abolish visas with Turkey in three years.

He stressed that there is an unwillingness among EU members to abolish visa requirements for Turks and added that the union uses the flow of illegal migrants to the EU through Turkey as a pretext.

On Dec. 16, 2013, Turkey and the EU signed an agreement on a visa liberalization dialogue, a process in which the EU has seen Turkey failing to live up to its commitments specified in the roadmap.

The European Stability Initiative (ESI), a leading European think tank, published a document in March in which it stressed that for Turkey to qualify for visa-free travel it would have to improve its border management, establish an asylum system complying with international standards, respect human rights and effectively fight illegal migration.