Posted on 17. November 2015
by Sadik Tabar
Within the last month, Turkey has been going through a quite arduous and lopsided political period: first German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Istanbul, then snap parliamentary elections, the delayed European Commission Annual Progress Report on Turkey and finally Turkey’s upcoming G-20 presidency. There are two key issues prevailing over the debates, negotiations and allegations associated with these events: the backsliding of Turkey on freedom of expression and the rule of law, and the relative hard work of Turkey on the recent refugee crisis. These two issues may seem unrelated, especially when Turkey has completely conflicting performances on each; however in terms of EU-Turkey relations, the issues have been interwoven during the latest political bargaining among these parties. Notwithstanding how ethical or unethical it is for both sides to negotiate on fundamental rights in exchange for humanitarian support and vice versa, this short critique will briefly argue how EU-Turkey relations have fallen into a mutually-accepted pragmatic whirlpool.
Following the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees toward the European Union territories, the EU institutions released concerned statements – yet each EU member state had to react individually and take their own measures. These measures range from Sweden’s continuing policy of welcoming refugees and providing shelters for those who pound at her border, to Hungary‘s fences built along her borders in addition to criminalising those who illegally trespass (fortunately electric fences would cost more than Hungary can afford). Under these circumstances, Merkel – whose national popularity fell to its lowest level since 2011 due to her decisive stance on welcoming refugees to Germany – once again had to take the lead within the EU in its dealing with the latest humanitarian crisis.
In this context, Merkel paid an unexpected visit to Istanbul in order to exchange views regarding the mitigation of the Syrian conflict and its spill-over effect on the EU, i.e. the refugee crisis. Although it is quite common knowledge that Merkel has been bluntly distant to Turkey’s EU membership, she has now found herself favouring visa liberalisation for Turkey. As a reward for readmitting those who previously flew to Europe via Turkey, Merkel offered granting Turkey ‘safe country of origin’ status in addition to financial assistance from EU funds to be spent by Turkey on those people. Safe country of origin status means being recognised by each EU member as a democratic system that embraces substantial rule of law, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and fundamental human rights. In other words, refugees who manage to arrive at EU territories through Turkey could face a faster return from Europe to Turkey since Turkey is seen as being as safe as Europe, and providing similar conditions. Because Turkey has been commonly accused of a failed record on these issues since the Gezi Park protests in 2013, granting Turkey such a status would also mean recognising that Turkey is going through a very speedy advancement. Is this advancement the real case? The delayed European Commission Progress Report for Turkey suggests otherwise.
Fuelled by Merkel’s recognition of Turkey’s level of democracy in granting Turkey safe country of origin status as well as promising to speed up negotiations on EU accession talks, the Turkish ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were more likely to gain credits to consolidate their pro-EU image in the eyes of undecided Turkish voters. Opposition parties, who based their competing campaigns on the claimed oppressive regime of the AKP, argued that Merkel – intentionally or otherwise – got involved supportively in the election campaign of the AKP. Merkel’s visit was roundly criticised by opposition parties in Germany as well. In the meantime, the attention of the Turkish media shifted immediately from the Daesh suicide bombing attack in Ankara that killed more than 100 people – the deadliest terrorist attack perpetrated within Turkish territories – to Merkel’s disputed visit, and concessions she had offered. After a few days of mourning, the media’s front pages carried headlines on visa liberalisation, the speeding up of the EU accession process and resolution guidelines for the aggravated migration crisis. Under these circumstances, the snap election in Turkey on 1 November came with an unexpected triumph for the AKP, who will now remain in power for 4 more years, in addition to a continuous 13 years since 2002. By now, in this zero-sum game, Merkel seems to lose credits in her internal politics whereas AKP and President Erdogan have gained.
Before the time was finally ripe on 10 November to release the delayed Progress Report on Turkey’s EU candidacy, the European Commission had to make a statement in response to accusations on the delay, stating that it is only the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker who can decide when to release the reports. However, the latest progress reports on Turkey had been released on the second or third Wednesday in the month of October, on 8 October 2014, 16 October 2013, 10 October 2012 and 12 October 2011. Only before 2011 were there times the report was released within the month of November. In this context, Juncker’s spokesman replied to allegations that the delayed report aligned to Merkel’s political incentives by arguing that with elections due, the Turkish government was not able to give the attention that the report itself merits. This argument makes sense only if we miss a minor, but important, detail. While progress reports for candidate countries were released on their regular timeline last year, Kosovo was only able to establish a government in December after holding parliamentary elections in June. Shouldn’t we look for consistency and reliability in these official statements? As a reminder, President Juncker is one of the EU policymakers who supports Merkel’s initiative-taking on the refugee crisis. Does Merkel aim to gain credits with the EU leadership at the expense of what she has been lately losing in her domestic politics?
On the other hand, the AKP welcomed the delay of the Progress Report. After its eventual publication, we clearly see that there is a sharp distinction between Turkey and the EU on their opinions and interpretations regarding Turkish politics in terms of rule of law, combating terrorism, the balance between individual freedom and national security, the judiciary system and so on. These matters interestingly align with the criteria attributed to the ‘safe country of origin’ status. Therefore, while the Progress Report has quite a few concerns on these matters related to Turkey’s performance, Merkel wants to make a somewhat conflicting offer to Turkey with the safe country of origin status. However, considering the fact that the arduous efforts by Turkey regarding the refugee crisis are highly appreciated in the report, the Commission also knows that a settlement of the refugee crisis is impossible without Turkey’s initiative-taking. And, to undertake such initiative, Turkey is looking for concessions that she would enjoy on the way toward EU accession. The EU would never offer safe country of origin status or anything else attributed to matters claimed in the Progress Report that are missing or lacking, whereas a national leader may and can. This is a well-balanced policy to hold the strings of Turkey on candidacy status, promising political concessions while also making a clear statement that Turkey is not in the same league as the EU in terms of democratic and human rights standards.
Lastly, the G20 Summit held in Antalya under the Turkish presidency, in which both EU and Turkish highest level of political figures participate, put a political issue in addition to several economic issues on the agenda for the first time. The Syrian conflict and its spill over effect on the refugee crisis – and the EU as a whole – were discussed. The G-20 Summit therefore concluded tangible policies and strategies on the refugee crisis through Turkish initiative and EU support.