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Monday, February 7, 2011

Egemen Bağış's decidedly unhelpful remarks

It's election season in Turkey, and it is perhaps this we see in some recent statements by leaders from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Their rhetoric on the stalled EU negotiations has been turned up quite a few notches. I have previously commented on Prime Minister Erdoğan's feisty Op. Ed. in Newsweek as well as his deputy Ali Babacan's warning that the EU is turning into a Christian club.

The location of Mr. Bağış's speech: Auschwitz.
The most recent addition to the AKP chorus of frustration is a speech by Turkey's EU minister and top negotiator, Egemen Bağış, given during a commemorative visit to Auschwitz last week. Bağış took the occasion to expand on his colleagues’ criticism against what they perceive as the increasingly parochial attitudes within several EU countries toward enlargement and their respective Turkish minorities.

One can think of few better places to raise the topic of the dangers of European parochialism, and the EU minister went on to emphasize the important point that
we cannot tolerate anti-Semitism and racism in any form.
Unfortunately, Mr. Bağış did not end his remarks there, but went on to offer an analysis of the growing presence of racism in today's Europe by reference to the continent's dark past:
It is unfortunate that the EU, founded in order to eliminate the threats of that period to peace, is today under the risk of conquest by a racist mentality that cannot internalize its own values and emulates the fascist methods of 1930s.
EurActiv put this provocative quote up front in their reporting of the event, and asked EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Štefan Füle to comment on Mr. Bağış's remarks. According to EurActiv's interview with Mr. Füle's spokeswoman, he had asked Mr. Bağış for a clarification and had received one.

Asked by EurActiv if the Commission didn’t find these statements misplaced even after the explanations, she [Mr. Füle's spokeswoman] said:
“Clearly, the original words could have been better chosen, and could have avoided any potential misunderstanding. All more important, given the timing and the location of their pronouncement. It was for this reason that Commissioner Füle took immediate contact with Minister Bağış, as he became aware of this speech,” she concluded.
So what was an important opportunity for Turkey to raise the matter of prejudice and racism toward Turks in the EU became a story framed as Turkey's EU minister comparing the EU to nazi Germany. And no one is more to blame than Mr. Bağış himself. Is there a continent-wide problem with right-wing xenophobia in Europe? Yes. Is it having an effect on Turkey's EU bid? Most certainly. Is Europe at risk of conquest by brown-shirts? Give me a break.

Such hyperbole is neither accurate nor helpful. Or at least it is not helpful if the aim is to shame liberal and progressive Europeans West of the Bosporus Strait to resuscitate the comatose accession negotiations. Instead, it diverts attention from the issue and onto the rhetoric. The real issue is, in Bağış's own words, that
Unfortunately today Turkey and the Turkish people in Europe bear the consequences of being different... Turkish people, implicitly or openly, are being told this: "You are different and you have no place among us."
But this important point gets lost when the attention is turned away from the message and on to the messenger. So my tip is for the AKP leadership to tone down their rhetoric a notch if they don't want to do further damage to the Turkish membership bid.

Of course, the intended audience may be at home, given that the July elections are looming, and several observers have already predicted harsher rhetoric from the AKP leadership in the months ahead. Despite generous pre-accession aid from the EU to Turkey, there is widespread and justified frustration in Turkey with the treatment their country has received from the Union, so an election strategy based on pushing back may seem like it would be good for the AKP's numbers in the polls.

Frankly, I doubt that it is needed, given the sad state of the opposition and the strength of the economy (not to mention the increasing pride many Turks likely feel over the growing role the country is playing in international politics, and over Erdoğan's rising star in the Middle East). And an (admittedly schematic) search on the online edition of a few large Turkish newspapers didn't find much domestic coverage of Mr. Bağış's speech, so my hunch is that the intended audience is in Paris, Berlin, and Brussels.

But if I am wrong and grandstanding against the EU has to be done until July, at least let it be done with a greater degree of diplomatic sophistication than what we have observed so far. There is a life after the election, too. There may even be some life left in the accession negotiations.

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