Democratization and Europeanization in Turkey after the September 12 Referendum

If properly implemented, the recent reform of the Turkish constitution will indeed make Turkey a more democratic country according to European Union (EU) standards. EU officials have praised the new constitutional amendments as they provide for more extensive protection for human rights, greater guarantees for Turkish labor, tighter civilian control of the military, and a reformed judicial system — all of which is key for Turkey to move forward with the EU accession process. This shall not lead us to hastily conclude, however, that Turkey is automatically closer to the goal of EU membership as a result of the September 12 referendum on constitutional reform, or that the bitter campaign leading up to the vote can be easily summarized as a contest between the supporters of democracy and European integration on the one hand and their opponents on the other

Turkey-EU relations are at one of the lowest points in years as evidenced not only by the sluggish pace of negotiations (only one negotiating chapter was opened during the “pro-Turkey” Spanish presidency of the EU in the first half of 2010), but also, and perhaps more critically, by the growing mutual estrangement among both the political elites and the public in EU member states and Turkey. The European Commission has described the last reform initiative as “a step in the right direction”, expressing essentially a technical opinion. But were democratization and European integration the main drivers for reform? The recent constitutional initiative was hardly triggered by demands coming directly from the European Commission. The political dynamics surrounding the last referendum on the contrary confirmed that, over the years, Turkey’s democratization and Europeanization processes have become less and less the product of a deliberate effort coherently pursued by Turkish elites than the uncertain outcome of what is primarily a struggle for power between actors representing different segments of the Turkish state and society.

A democratic Turkey as a full member of the EU remains a possibility in the medium-to-long term, but one that seems to increasingly depend on a combination of favorable developments — a renewed interest in the EU in Turkey and vice versa, a constructive engagement between the government and opposition parties on the future reform agenda, as well as a sustainable solution to the Kurdish issue — which at the moment look far from likely.