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Blow to EU-Turkey ties

Menekse Tokyay, AnkaraAugust 12, 2016

Turkish authorities have cancelled an EU scholarship program. The move takes the country a step further away from EU integration and disappoints young people who could act as a bridge. Menekse Tokyay reports from Ankara.

Silhouettes of graduates in cap and gown are seen in front of Bonn University
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Stratenschulte

Emre Kosif, an international relations graduate from Middle East Technical University in Turkey's capital city of Ankara, was looking forward to study at London School of Economics with a Jean Monnet (JM) scholarship this year.

But he was dismayed by a notice he saw on Twitter last week that Turkish authorities had unilaterally cancelled this year's JM scholarship program "due to the recent developments in Turkey with the aim of not jeopardizing the reputation of the program."

The program, which covers tuition fees and living expenses, is funded by the EU and implemented by the Turkish Ministry for EU Affairs. The ministry explained the decision in another announcement, saying current conditions in Turkey could pose problems regarding the secondment procedures of employees in public institutions and universities, and render participation in the program limited.

The decision was a huge disappointment for Kosif and many other graduates.

"I was crushed under the unfairness of the decision considering the effort I have made," Kosif told DW. "My dreams about getting a sophisticated education at one of the most prestigious universities in the world and then finding my way into a career in international organizations have been taken away by a one-sentence cancellation notice," he added.

Kosif's only option is to go through the process of applying again and waiting another year, if he's intent on doing the JM scholarship. But he is not sure he is willing to do that.

"The most depressing aspect of this whole situation is that Turkish authorities have ignored the importance of an integration project, but they don't feel responsible and sorry for the efforts of the people who really need this scholarship," Kosif said.

The overall objective of the JM scholarship program, funded by the EU since 1990, is to connect young people in EU candidate countries with other European societies by providing an opportunity to study in the bloc and broaden their perspectives on European integration.

Therefore, the cancellation is not only a setback for the career of about 170 candidates in Turkey, but also another step away from EU integration by closing a bridge that hundreds have taken advantage of in the more than two decades of the program's existence.

Government criticism of exams

The decision did not, however, come out of the blue.

In the wake of the failed July 15 coup attempt, over 60,000 civil servants suspected to be followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen - who the Turkish government blames for the coup - were suspended from their duties and put under investigation, thousands were detained or arrested and thousands of passports invalidated.

Politicians from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) dismissed rumors the JM scholarship was cancelled to prevent any member of the Gulen movement from using the program to flee Turkey, saying the names of the recipients had not yet been disclosed.

Fethullah Gulen
The Turkish government holds Fethullah Gulen responsible for the attempted coupImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Fgulen.Com

Talip Kucukcan, an academic and AKP politician, said the decision had been affected by the current situation in Turkey. He indicated that the government is especially concerned about the fairness of the exam process administered to select scholarship recipients.

"There is a general sensitivity in Turkey about national exams as they have been manipulated in the past by members of the Fethullah Gulen movement who were influential in institutions organizing those exams. They have used their influence and authority in favor of their followers through open-ended questions and interviews," Kucukcan told DW.

Kucukcan added that although the scholarship has been shelved for the moment, it will continue next year.

Weakening EU perspective

Previous JM scholarship recipients like Bahadir Kaleagasi, the first Turk grantee, and currently international coordinator of TUSIAD, the Turkish business association, can only lament that others won't be able to take advantage of the program.

"It sometimes takes time for the political institutions to realize that the social tools of integration are part of the solution," Kaleagasi told DW.

The "EU has also made many mistakes in dealing with Turkey, such as blocking the negotiation chapters on democracy," he said, adding that EU-Turkey relations have "suffered because of political problems taking social progress hostage."

In view of the ever weaker perspective of Turkey joining the EU, it is hardly surprising the government decided to cancel the program. If Turkey saw a greater chance of being accepted into the bloc and was more committed itself, Ankara would have been less likely to have taken such a step.

Interim solution

Ayselin Yildiz, a professor of international relations at Yasar University who conducts a teaching program in the field of European Union studies, sees the cancellation of the program as a crucial strategic mistake and a failure of crisis management that will damage the future of Turkish youth. Many of her students who had been accepted to top European universities had lost their motivation because without the JM scholarships they could no longer able to afford to study there.

"Rather than cancelling the program, an effective and fair solution could have been found in order to secure the rights of successful candidates who have no relation with any terrorist groups," Yildiz told DW.

A tattered EU flag and a Turkish flag wave in front of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
EU-Turkish relations have become especially fraught in the wake of the attempted coupImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Bozoglu

She suggested the scholarships meant to be allocated to public officials - half of this year's 170 scholarships - could be dedicated to students and private sector employees instead.

"This extraordinary measure could be justified under the state-of-emergency situation and could much better serve the aims of the Jean Monnet Program by at least securing the scholarship of students and the private sector," she said.

The author of this article was a Jean Monnet scholarship recipient in 2005.