Limited Autonomy of the Civil Society and the Misuse of the EU Accession Process

Misuse of the European integration process by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is interrelated to a process of the control of the civil society which goes hand in hand with transforming the Turkish cultural capital. According to the interviews conducted with the major civil society leaders, the democratisation discourse of the AKP is superficial. Moreover, the usage of the European integration process by AKP as a room to manoeuvre in the domestic politics and as a tool for Turkey’s further authoritarisation.

Limited Autonomy of the Civil Society and the Misuse of the EU Accession Process

On a recent official visit in Turkey, the European Parliament’s President Martin Schulz stated that the EU Parliament had wondered about the sincerity of the AKP’s reforms and is now convinced that “the EU is of no importance” to them and the reforms are rather of a tactical nature. Schulz said that “There is a difference between Erdoğan’s previous and present attitudes. We had believed that he would carry out fundamental reforms, but he is making tactical reforms. We are disappointed.”[1] In this article, parallel with this scepticism towards the sincerity of the AKP, I propose a new concept in the context of the EU membership process of Turkey, namely the misuse of the European integration process by the government party that is interrelated to a process of the control of the civil society which goes hand-in-hand with transforming the cultural capital in Turkey. I concentrate on some concrete crucial cases, such as the Alevi initiative, the failed Deniz Feneri (Lighthouse) case and the changes in the structure of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), which, in essence, lead to further democracy deficits in Turkey.

The image of Europe has been a permanent reference point in political discourses in Turkey. Ruling cadres exercise power and ensures their cultural and moral leadership through utilizing the European integration process and, more specifically, the Copenhagen criteria. The most striking example is the use of the European integration process by the AKP as a room to manoeuvre in the domestic politics and as a tool for Turkey’s further authoritarisation. The centre-right Islamist AKP, which defines itself as a party of conservative democrats, justifies its practices and arrangements with reference to the EU accession process and further strengthens its ideological hegemony. In other words, in the current political climate, the AKP instrumentalizes EU accession process as a form of social control.

During the EU accession process, Prime Minister Erdoğan and Minister for EU affairs, Egemen Bağış have continuously stated the commitment of the AKP to the EU membership goal from the start. After the party came to the power in 2002, it implemented a pro-EU political and economic reform agenda. Eight EU harmonization legislation packages were passed by the legislature. Turkish prominent political scientists have agreed upon the fact that AKP’s support for the EU started as a tactic to hinder the repression by the established Kemalist elites and afterwards became a strategic tool in order to distinguish themselves from the earlier political Islam roots, represented by the ideology of Necmettin Erbakan and the Milli Görüş (National Outlook).[2] Moreover, it has aimed to transform the rules and regulations to enhance religious rights and freedoms as a measure against secularist establishment. Yet, there is lately a fierce debate whether the AKP government poses a serious threat to Turkey’s traditional pro-European stance with its shift in foreign policy towards the non-EU neighbours and whether the AKP aims at further authoritarisation of Turkish political system and civil society.

Civil society has become one of the most commonly used term in social scientific discourses that deals with the social, political and economic transformation of Turkey in the EU accession process. Nevertheless, the AKP aims to control the whole Turkish civil society and intends to transform Turkey’s cultural capital.[3] With this in mind, an influential group of social scientists argue that the government party AKP practices subtle discrimination among civil society organizations to strengthen its cultural and moral leadership. It is argued that the government is closer to those groups with which it has ideological or political similarities. This has become more explicit when the AKP government supported the conservative Turkish charity named “Deniz Feneri” (Lighthouse), whose representatives are the members of the AKP. Critics accuse the AKP of protecting the accomplices in the Lighthouse Affair, the biggest charity corruption case in Germany’s history, and of using the embezzled money to support the AKP’s political aims. The opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP) argued that the money was utilized to support media close to the AKP. Recently, three prosecutors were abruptly removed from the case without sufficient cause. They could now face jail terms and expulsion from the profession. In fact, they are persecuted for advancing the Lighthouse probe by the AKP controlled judiciary.[4]

In the European Commission Progress Report 2010, the adoption of the constitutional amendments on the composition of the HSYK is considered to be a positive step. The recent arrangements have changed the council’s makeup significantly, giving the AKP a potentially broad scope of authority. The EU has supported the changes in the structure of the HSYK and appraised it as a democratisation step, despite the fact that opposition parties and civil society organisations warned against the danger that the judiciary could become dependent to the government party. In Turkey, the fear that the AKP would consolidate its power through the amendments, came true. Partly as a consequence of these changes, activists and journalists have been arrested in the past months by Turkish police in alleged terror plot but actually in wave of media and opposition repression.  KCK operations is used as principal means to push the BDP politicians out of politics. The Confederation of Trade Unions and Public Employees (KESK), the Human Rights Association (IHD), the Education and Science Workers’ Union (Eğitim-Sen), as well as various other non-governmental organizations accused of being linked to the KCK.

When Minister for EU Affairs Egemen Bağış was pressed on the topic of arrested journalists on the BBC’s renowned news program “Hard Talk” on March 1, he stated that there were no journalists arrested due to their professional activities, but there are some people who carried journalist identification cards who have been chaught while raping another person. The fact that there is no journalist on the lists who has been arrested because of the crime of rape causes suspects on the honesty of the AKP’s statements regarding the arrests. In any case, AKP government denies that there are over 100 journalists in prison and tries to convince the EU with disinformation.

Lately, the AKP governed Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality has adopted new regulations on the management of the Istanbul City Theaters; which would change the administrative committe of the Istanbul City Theaters. It is argued that this would increase control over the artistic content of city theaters, which are formerly accused by the AKP of underestimating religious people.

One further example on how the AKP policies contradict civil liberties or democracy rather than fitting into the EU accession process is the Alevi initiative launched in 2007, which has failed due to the intention of the AKP to create an official form of Alevism, ruled by its Sunni-led Directorate of Religious Affairs. At that time, the European leaders supported government’s Alevi initiative of the AKP. Nevertheless, Vicdan Baykara, an Alevi labour union leader said: “The government wants to extinguish the Alevi movement. If the Directorate of Religious Affairs recognizes one form of Alevism, all other concepts of Alevism will be suppressed and destroyed. In one sense assimilation will occur. So the AKP will make it seem like Alevism is recognized while using methods to diminish it further.”[5] In a recently conducted interview by the author of this article, an Alevi leader stated: ‘The AKP intends to control the whole civil society; they never proposed a solution during the Alevi initiative. They aimed to make us ineffective and take possession on us.’

Existence of strong civil society organizations monitoring the activities of the government has become more prominent in this environment. According to the 31 semi-structured interviews conducted in order to explore the positions of the major civil society leaders vis-à-vis the government, the democratisation discourse of the AKP is superficial. They claim that repression and discrimination dominate government-civil society relations. In order to be considered as legitimate, the ideological or political standings of the civil society organisations have to align with the political preferences of the AKP. To illustrate, Memur-Sen (Confederation of Trade Unions of Public Servants) has close affiliations with the AKP. The Union was the smallest of the three public sector confederations ten years ago, neverthless it has increased its membership from 2002 to 2012 from 41. 000 to 515. 000.[6] The last example of discrimination is the statement of Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç that collective bargaining is only the right of Memur-Sen.[7] The leaders of trade union confederations (DİSK, TÜRK-İŞ)  and confederations of public servants (KESK, KAMU-SEN) criticise the government party to create their own trade and public employee unions so that the with latter they can make others passive.

The following questions are crucial: Has the AKP consolidated its power in Turkey in part by using the EU accession process? Is the accession discourse still necesssary for the AKP? Politics is a dynamic process. There is still an ongoing power struggle in the country. Still the 50% of the Turkish voters vote for other parties than the AKP. [8] On the other hand, the EU may change its ally in Turkey and start supporting the opposition party CHP (Republican People’s Party) more prominently. It can be argued that in the current deadlock the AKP cannot credibly refer to the EU process to justify the violations of fundamental rights the article points out. Yet, it seems like this is not the case. Despite its current power in Turkish politics the AKP would still want to hide behind the EU accession process, or use it to justify its grip on power when necessary.

To conclude, it could be argued that the abuse of civil society has become more common during the EU Accession Process than before. The AKP utilizes the EU accession process as the most appropriate way of holding the political power and pursuing its own political agenda in a slow but steady manner.

 Can Büyükbay, Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Political Science at the University of Zurich

Please cite this publication as follows:

Büyükbay, Can (July, 2012), “Limited Autonomy of the Civil Society and the Misuse of the EU Accession Process”, Vol. I, Issue 5, pp.6-10, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (


[2]  Keyman, F./ Öniş; Z. (2004): Helsinki, Copenhagen and beyond. Challenges to the New Europe and the Turkish State, In: Uğur, Mehmet; Canefe, Nergis (Eds:): Turkey and European Integration. Accession Prospects and issues,London: Routledge: 184.

[3] Recently, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that his government wants to “raise a religious youth” and has characterized abortions a crime and spoken against Caesarian section. From now on, state funded youth camps will be segregated by gender.

[4] CHP European Union Representation Brussels, Turkish News Folder, 1 February 2012


[6] Ministry of Labor and Social Security;


[8] anket/siyaset/siyasetdetay/11.05.2012/1539001/default.htm



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