While the spokesperson was quick to add that the move was purely a matter of scheduling, analysts immediately interpreted the decision as a way of giving Turkey more time to push through last-minute reforms and make headway on the Cyprus issue. Turkey was harshly criticised in an EU report released at the beginning of September for its “persistent shortcomings” and “insufficient progress” in the areas of women’s rights, minority and religious rights, law enforcement and freedom of expression, leading many to speculate that the progress report due in November will be strongly negative.
On September 21, prosecutors in Istanbul dropped the case against Elif Safak, a well-known Turkish novelist. Safak had been charged under the controversial Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) for “insulting Turkishness” in her latest work, The Bastard of Istanbul (Baba ve Pic). Her case was widely perceived as a litmus test of the country’s support for human rights and freedom of expression ahead of the EU’s progress report.
In the EU report released at the beginning of September, Dutch conservative Euro MP Camiel Eurlings, who authored the paper, took a stern line against Article 301. “Even after the modernisation of the penal code, we see that a few articles in the new penal code (notably 301 but also other articles that are mentioned), are abused or used by judges to imprison or indict people for a non-violent expression of opinion.”
While Euro MPs have indicated their desire for Turkey to remove Article 301 from the TCK in its latest round of EU accession reforms, the Turkish government has been sending more mixed signals. While Turkish Justice Minister Cemil Cicek and Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin dismissed any chance of amending the TCK in the near future, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and State Minister Ali Babacan, in charge of the country’s EU accession negotiations, have made more vague comments on the issue of late, with Gul suggesting recently that the government may make “useful additions” to the code as part of its upcoming reform package.
Speaking in Brussels, Joost Langedijk, a senior Euro MP, still held out hope that the measure could be struck from the TCK, and perhaps even in the near future. “If one listens carefully to Turkish officials,” Langedijk said, “there is probably a chance to reach progress over Article 301.” He went on to add that, “something could happen in the next two months.”
The Turkish parliament (TBMM) recently reconvened, two weeks ahead of schedule, to debate a series of reform measures in line with the EU entry process. Reforms currently under consideration include a proposal to expand opportunities for privately run minority schools and a measure dealing with the settlement of immigrants, nomads and internally displaced residents.
The EU has also recently renewed calls for Turkey to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic, a step it says Turkey must take before the end of the year in order to fulfil its obligation under a protocol signed in 2005 to extend the Turkish-EU customs bloc to the EU’s 10 newest member states. Commenting on the negotiating process in an interview with the international press on September 18, Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis said that she hoped “to make Turkey realise that its way to the EU passes through Cyprus, passes through a united Cyprus.”
Ankara has made its position on Cyprus clear, however: it will not open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic until the international economic isolation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) comes to an end. The Turkish government feels it has not received credit from the EU for changing its stance on Cyprus back in 2004, when both it and Turkish Cypriot voters supported the UN-sponsored settlement, only to have Greek Cypriot voters reject the plan in a referendum and see their side of the divided island join the EU anyway.
While Turkey is unlikely to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic before the report is released at the beginning of November, there are hopes that if the country makes at least some progress on human rights reforms, it could help to offset a negative finding in the report regarding the Cyprus issue.