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Europe

Is Turkey Losing its Reform Zeal?

With the start of EU accession talks scheduled for later this year, Turkey's critics say its reform zest appears to be waning. But could it simply be a case that the drone of domestic politics has taken over?

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Turkey still has some work to do before EU entry talks get underway

When EU Expansion Commissioner Olli Rehn and EU Council President Jean Asselborn arrive in Ankara for talks with the Turkish Foreign Minister Abdulla Gul on Monday, it is likely to be under a cloud of some tension. In the past few weeks a number of incidences have collectively led critics to suggest that Turkey's reform movement has begun to lose momentum.

At the end of last year, the picture was quite different. In the months leading up to the decision on EU entry negotiations, the parliament under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan passed one reform after another in a flurry of law-making activity. It was a means to an end, and on Dec. 17 last year, the European Council gave the green light for entry talks to begin. It was something of a victory for Erdogan.

Running out of steam?

Critics are now loudly questioning the lack of continued activity on Turkey's reform map, and asking whether Erdogan simply ran out of steam. One sign of such is that the Turkish prime minister has not yet named a head negotiator for the entry talks even though Expansion Commissioner Olli Rehn is arriving in Ankara on Monday. It's a point of some contention in Turkey, with even the Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Yezer calling on the prime minister to name someone for the post.

Türkinnen vor Türkei-Plakat

Accession negotiations are scheduled for October

Luxembourg's European Minister Nicolas Schmidt and the EU Ambassador in Ankara, the German diplomat Hansjörg Kretschmer have both criticized Turkey's slowing progress, enraging the Turkish government as a result.

But Professor Udo Steinbach, director of the German Orient Institute in Hamburg said he believed the evidence being bandied about as proof of Turkey's ebbing commitment to reform cannot be used as such, and blames the media for exaggerating the situation.

Steinbach said that the considerable pressure to get the reform ball rolling ahead of Dec. 17 may have eased off, but that is not to say that the general level of government interest in entry talks has diminished. He said that Turkey has simply shifted its attention back to the daily grind of domestic political life.

A long path to reform

Nobody argues that Turkey doesn't still have a long way to go, and on Monday, the EU Enlargement Commissioner is expected to press Ankara to initial an agreement to extend its customs union to the 10 new EU member states, including Cyprus.

Türkei Parlament in Ankara

Turkish parliament in Ankara

Originally Ankara was supposed to have signed up by the end of February. But for Erdogan the signature is incredibly delicate, as it could be interpreted as recognition of Cyprus, which could lead to internal political difficulties. On the other hand, the EU made it perfectly clear that if Turkey does not sign the politically sensitive protocol, there will be no accession talks come October.

A further problem is the conflict between Turkey and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Last December, the IMF agreed to a three year aid program to the tune of more than €10 billion ($13 billion) but Turkey has not yet made good on the economic reform it pledged in return for the financial package.

Steinbach said that in light of the tense situation, Monday's EU delegation visit is not without significance. He said he believed the most critical point on the agenda is the Cyprus problem, but added the responsibility does not only lay with Turkey, but also with Greece.

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