EU welcomes constitutional reforms, urges Ankara to go further
By Joanna Sopinska | Monday 13 September 2010
The EU executive has welcomed the approval of changes to Turkey’s constitution in a national referendum, describing it as a “step in the right direction”. It warned, however, that it will keep a close eye on the implementation process. “These reforms are a step in the right direction as they address a number of long-standing priorities in Turkey’s efforts towards fully complying with the accession criteria,” Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle said in a statement, on 13 September. “However, their impact on the ground will depend on their actual implementation,” he added.
The Commission also argued for further “much needed” fundamental rights reforms, suggesting the country should draw up a new civilian constitution. “Today’s vote needs to be followed by other much needed reforms to address the remaining priorities in the area of fundamental rights,” said Füle. “A new civilian constitution would provide a solid base for a sustained development of democracy in Turkey,” he added.
Turkish citizens voted on 12 September on the package of 26 changes to the constitution that was crafted in the wake of the country’s 1980 military coup. The government says that the proposed reforms, passed with an estimated 58% in favour and 42% against, would strengthen democracy and bring the military-era constitution more in line with European norms. The opposition, however, argues that the changes would shackle the independence of the courts.
The referendum has become a battleground between the Islamic-oriented government and traditional power elites that believe Turkey’s secular principles are under threat. According to experts, the outcome of Sunday’s vote is a blow to the opposition and a boost to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of the general elections in 2011.
Ahead of the vote on constitutional changes, the EU’s foreign ministers held an informal discussion, on 11 September, on ways to boost strategic dialogue with Ankara in areas of common interest, such as Iran, the Western Balkans and the Middle East. The meeting underscored deep divisions among member states. While the UK and Finland argued for the acceleration of the accession talks, others led by Germany advocated building closer ties outside the framework of Ankara’s EU membership bid.
“It’s very important to show some momentum and the UK will be trying to make sure that happens over the next few months,” British Foreign Minister William Hague said of the Turkish accession talks. “I say [Turkey] is one of the top five countries in the world today in terms of foreign policy, and we in the EU need to understand that,” Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said. Ahead of the meeting, the British and Finnish foreign ministers came up with a proposal to give Turkey a place at the EU meetings concerning issues of common interest. “Only by having a seat at the table will Turkey be able to contribute fully to the security and prosperity of the EU’s member states,” said Hague and Stubb in an article published in
The Financial Times,on 8 September.
Commenting on the proposal, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters that the EU “would be well advised to build up relations” with Turkey instead of focusing on membership talks. The Union’s foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, admitted that the EU has been considering fostering dialogue with Ankara but made clear that it will not be “a way of putting Turkey in the room as the 28th member without them going through the process” of accession.
ChangesThe proposed changes give civilian courts the power to try military personnel for crimes against the state, while sacked military officers will have the right to appeal against their dismissal. They increase the number of appointees to the Constitutional Court and allow the parliament to be involved in selecting more of the judges. In addition, workers will be allowed to join more than one union and the ban on politically motivated strikes will be removed. In parliament, elected lawmakers will be able to stay on if their party is disbanded by the court.