ISTANBUL — European Union foreign ministers have green-lighted the resumption of membership talks with Turkey. Negotiations have been stalled for three years by political tensions and, more recently, the Turkish government's violent crackdown on protesters this past summer. Still, despite efforts to restart the accession process, questions remain over how much influence Brussels has over Ankara.
The EU meant to restart membership talks with Ankara in June. But the decision was delayed due to the Turkish government’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protests led by what became known as the “Gezi Park Movement.”
According to Kadri Gursel, diplomatic columnist for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet and website Al-Monitor, those protests played a key role in Brussels deciding to reactivate the talks.
“The Gezi Park agenda is simply the EU agenda; liberties, rights, civil society, having a say in the future of the country. It was a European type of protest, and this encouraged the EU to keep the accession process alive," said Gursel.
The EU’s annual membership report on Turkey strongly condemned the government's crackdown on the protests.
While Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has welcomed Brussels’ decision to reopen talks, he dismissed EU criticism of his government's crackdown on the opposition, saying no one other than the Turkish nation has a right to issue what he called “school reports” on Turkey.
Semih Idiz, a diplomatic columnist for the Turkish newspaper Taraf and Al-Monitor website says the prime minister's tough stance towards Brussels is a sign he is concerned about possible future unrest.
“Turkey is under the projector as far as human rights is concerned. No doubt the EU will continue to try to apply what pressure it has. And perhaps this is why Erdogan is angry," said Idiz.
Even though the EU's membership talks with Turkey have reopened, observers say Brussels' influence on Ankara will be limited.
Out of 35 membership chapters Ankara has to complete to join the EU, after eight years, just 14 have been opened and only one has been completed.
And, according to opinion polls, public support for the EU membership bid has plummeted over the past three years, falling from over 70 percent to less than half.
Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist and columnist for Taraf, says deep skepticism now exists both among Turkey's people and politicians about whether the bid will ever succeed. Aktar argues that unless this changes, there is little hope Brussels can persuade the government to address human rights concerns in the coming years.
“Without a clear pronunciation by the EU member states of a clear date for Turkey to join the EU, I don’t think we will move forward and it's highly improbable that this government led by Prime Minister Erdogan will take more reformist action between now and the election cycle which will end in 2015," said Aktar.
Erdogan is courting nationalist voters, who, observers say, are the most skeptical about EU membership and human rights reforms. Until recently, Ankara had argued that Turkey’s interests extend far beyond Europe, a policy buoyed by the Arab Spring.
But growing turmoil in the region has resulted in Ankara becoming increasingly isolated, says political scientist Aktar. And that means continuing the EU membership talks is becoming increasingly important to the Turkish government.
“The government’s foreign policy has no correspondent anymore in the world and I think at the end of the day what remains in terms of foreign policy bonds is the EU relationship and the NATO relationship, full stop," he said.
Observers say with a general election due in 2015, Erdogan is likely to face the balancing act of keeping the EU talks on track in the face of increasing pressure from Brussels over human rights, along with possible further civic unrest.