Humboldtians in Focus

The Hour of the Experts

By Georg Scholl

The hour of the scientific policy advisors has come in the European Union's accession negotiations with Turkey. Two Humboldtians are among the experts being consulted.

Some friendships are so close that not even a cigarette paper would fit in between. In contrast, there is still quite a lot of room for Turkey and the European Union (EU) to get closer together. The Candidate Country and the European Union, which is making a fuss about Turkey's EU membership, are divided by a roughly 85,000-page document comprising European guidelines and directives, the Acquis Communautaire, which anyone wishing to join the club has to translate into national legislation. What is the best and quickest way for Turkey to do this is the question asked by the advocates of accession. Sceptics wonder whether Turkey will be able to manage it at all.

Quick answers are not available. Politicians need scientific advice - and are receiving it from two Humboldtians whom one might not expect it from at first glance. One of them is Yesim Atamer, a law scholar who grew up in Turkey and Germany. As a lecturer at Bilgi University, this 37-year-old academic is still relatively at the beginning of her career, above all in comparison to her much older colleagues, whom she is meeting at a major conference of the Humboldt Foundation in the spring of 2006. The youthful-looking woman sticks out among the other Humboldtians from her discipline, all of them highly respected professors of law, judges and constitutional judges, and most of them white-haired. They stand for a generation of scholars who have done much for the development of the legal system in Turkey. Some of them went to prison or had to sacrifice their careers for this cause but they are still campaigning for the rule of the law and the observance and enforceability of the rights embodied in the constitution. Nevertheless, it is their young colleague whose expertise is being sought by politics.

Competence instead of eminence grise

Atamer advises the Turkish Ministry of Trade and Industry on the implementation of European guidelines on consumer protection, product liability and Internet trade. As the very opposite of an eminence grise, and without any connections to a political party and the political establishment, her sole qualification for this job is her specialist competence, and here she is virtually without rivals. "For many years, older colleagues have simply not taken any interest in Europe, especially in private law," says Atamer. Now they know too little about the subject matter to be able to advise the government. In the Government Departments, too, in which the legal profession is usually underrepresented, competence in European affairs has only hesitantly been nurtured and encouraged - and now there is lack of experts. Atamer nevertheless believes that Turkey is on the right track in terms of commercial law and consumer protection: "Turkey has done a good deal of preparation. The first law on consumer protection that conforms to European legislation was already adopted in 1995. As a result, we shall be able to translate the corresponding provisions into national law in three to five years' time." 

Such optimism is not shared by everyone, especially with a view to the other fields of the Acquis. Whereas the Turkish government, supported by junior academics oriented towards Europe, is attempting to make up ground, the old-established EU states are concentrating on a sober analysis of what Turkey has to catch up on. Here, scientific expertise on Europe has nothing to do with the continent it comes from, as Australian political scientist Steve Wood demonstrates. Years of dealing with Europe as well as many research stays and travels across the continent have turned this Humboldt Award Winner from Griffith into an expert who is in demand in Germany, too. Together with German economist Wolfgang Quaisser, he prepared a report funded by the Bavarian Land Government on Turkey's accession to the EU. Does the view from a distance allow for a more realistic judgement?

“Anyone who is serious about democracy can't ignore the population's opinion on the issue of accession.”

Wood also regards the reforms as a move in the right direction and confirms the political prospects for integration in his report, although he is less optimistic than Atamer. He believes that Turkey will need at least another 10, if not 15 years to implement the essential elements of the Acquis. While the banking system, for example, has already been successfully brought in line with European standards, privatisation or the reform of the social welfare system are still in their infancy. "If you look at most of the relevant indicators, such as differences in income levels, it would be easier for the EU to integrate Mexico than Turkey," according to Wood. To him, the formal implementation of European law, regardless of how many years it will take, is only one stage of a long journey: "Turkey is not going to change fundamentally overnight. It takes time for formal amendments of laws to reach legal practice and for shortcomings in political and personal freedom to be eliminated."

Atamer shares this critical assessment. She distinguishes sharply between the implementation of the Acquis in national laws on the one hand and deficits in human rights and the judicial system on the other. In this political area, the EU had made the commencement of accession conditional on the fulfilment of the so-called Copenhagen Criteria. A democratic order based on the rule of law, the protection of human rights and of minorities are demanded. The accession negotiations are underway, and the EU Commission has declared the political conditions to have been met. Whether and how they are impacting on practice is quite another matter. For instance, as yet, it is not possible to lodge an individual constitutional complaint in Turkey. Having been condemned 270 times for violations of the European Convention on Human Rights in 2005 alone, Turkey is right at the very top of the table of 46 countries which, as Members of the Council of Europe, stand before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to have judgement passed.

Stumbling over human rights

So could it be that Turkey manages to clear the European hurdle in private law, but still comes a cropper over human rights? "I believe that the process of democratisation is going to continue in Turkey and that it will have a further impact on legal reality," says Atamer. "I wouldn't venture to state that this is feasible in five years. But it is possible to assert human rights in Turkey. This is something I have to hope for as a lawyer. I have no other option." Hope could turn into certainty if the process of accession makes further progress and is consolidated. Atamer believes that integration will have this effect. "Turkey is integrated in an international system. It simply cannot afford to make a retrograde step." Is this truly the case? Many of Atamer's older colleagues believe that there is a real possibility of the current government allowing a creeping Islamification of secular Turkey. They mistrust pledges to democracy, drawing attention to unconstitutional Islamic religious instruction at Turkish schools. Why is nobody taking legal action against this? One of the judges says that he fears social reprisals against his family, and his colleagues agree.

Steve Wood is not impressed by the integrative power argument: "Of course joining the EU would enhance the process of reform. But reforms do not depend on whether Turkey is allowed to accede or not. After all, the reforms are in Turkey's interest, accession or no accession." Not only because of the democratic deficits and the difficulties in implementing the Acquis but also with regard to the high integration costs the EU will incur in euros and cents, Wood advises against Turkey's full membership in the EU in his report. However, Wood, who has dealt extensively with national and cultural identities in Europe and the population's acceptance of EU policies, holds that there is a completely different side to the democracy argument. Politicians shouldn't really be the only ones to take a decision on accession based on scientific reports, says Wood. "Anyone who is serious about democracy can't ignore the population's opinion on such an issue." Run a plebiscite, the Australian recommends the Europeans. Atamer maintains that one could reckon with a definite yes in Turkey at any rate. And in the EU Member States? "Perhaps a no would be more probable," says Wood. "But at least it would be a really democratic no."

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