What to do about Turkey´s EU membership bid?

Posted on 31. August 2017

by Doris Manu

doris-manuNearly one year ago, Turkey faced a domestic crisis of international significance, which interrupted the summer holidays of many, including those of the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. While the all too powerful Turkish leader was the only target of the putschists in mid-July 2016, the consequences of the attempted coup affected far more people than anyone could have imagined.

The clashes that erupted immediately left 240 dead. In the months that followed, tens of thousands were imprisoned, while more than 150,000 were investigated for their links with the group believed to have planned to overthrow the president.

The course of Turkish history has changed. Erdoğan has been gaining more and more power over the past year, culminating in last April’s referendum on the constitutional reform, which made Turkey a presidential system and multiplied the number of mandates the president can have.

Most importantly, these events exacerbated the deep divisions in Turkish society, between the urban and rural milieus as well as between the east and the west of the country.

The European Union’s reaction to the repression in the aftermath of the coup attempt and to the results of the referendum has been as tactful as it could have been. At the end of last summer, many EU officials flocked to Ankara to assess the situation. During their meetings with Turkish officials, they expressed their “full support to the democratically elected institutions of the country”[i], while diplomatically suggesting that respect for human rights should be upheld. In the official statement released after the referendum, the EU took “note of the reported results”[ii] and encouraged Turkey “to address the Council of Europe’s concerns and recommendations”[iii].

The harsh criticism of European civil society organisations, directed at the EU institutions for their failure to protest the crackdown on dissent occurring in Turkey, did not prompt a change of the official policy line.

However, the disagreement inside the EU establishment regarding the Union’s relation with Turkey is becoming apparent, as some member states are becoming increasingly vocal in questioning the future of the accession negotiations. German officials have notably been very critical of Erdoğan, with a war of words between Berlin and Ankara escalating to the point where the German Foreign Minister said that “we can’t go on as before”[iv] and suggested that the EU should cut pre-accession aid to Turkey.

Similarly, European NGOs active in the defence of human rights requested that the EU suspend accession negotiations with Turkey, a country they described as a “lawless area, openly violating democratic principles and human rights.”[v] On 6 July, the European Parliament in Strasbourg also called for the accession talks to be suspended.

The European Commission – the EU institution in charge of conducting accession talks with Turkey – did not yield to the pressure, although it signalled that the reintroduction of the death penalty is a red line and could shut the EU door indefinitely. The difficulty of taking a political decision to suspend a technical process and to undo what has been built over many years is not surprising.

Nevertheless, the European Commission, as the guardian of the EU Treaties, has the crucial responsibility to defend the Union’s values. Democracy in Turkey is crumbling and the Turkish authorities blatantly violate the freedom of thought and freedom of expression on a daily basis by making defamation a criminal offence and invoking this law to silence critical voices.

The changing relationship between the state and religion is affecting the rights of secular Turkish citizens in particular. Women who do not wear a headscarf are harassed and expected to dress more conservatively. Thousands marched on the streets of Istanbul at the end of July to raise awareness about the harassment and the discrimination they face every day.

If Turkey continues to violate the rights and freedoms of its citizens, the current leadership should be penalised for that. While it is very important to have a good relationship with one of the EU’s biggest neighbours, the unpredictable course of Turkey under Erdoğan and the complete disregard for European values calls for a rethinking of the ties.

The EU’s response to growing authoritarianism in Turkey should not go as far as imposing sanctions (yet), but freezing the accession negotiations and the EU funds to Ankara is the next step the European Commission must dare to take.

[i] European External Action Service, Statement by Federica Mogherini and Johannes Hahn a year after a coup attempt in Turkey, https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/29890/statement-federica-mogherini-and-johannes-hahn-year-after-coup-attempt-turkey_en, Bruxelles, 14 July 2017.

[ii] European External Action Service, Statement by President Juncker, High Representative/Vice-President Mogherini and Commissioner Hahn on the referendum in Turkey, https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/24709/statement-referendum-turkey_en, Brussels, 16 April 2017.

[iii] Idem.

[iv]Jakob Hanke, “Relations with Turkey ‘can’t go on as before,’ says Germany”, Politico Europe, http://www.politico.eu/article/sigmar-gabriel-peter-steudtner-erdogan-relations-with-turkey-cant-go-on-as-before-says-germany/, Brussels, 20 July 2017

[v] European Public Service Union, Turkish government faces widespread condemnation over violation of human rights, democracy and freedom of press violations,

http://www.epsu.org/article/turkish-government-faces-widespread-condemnation-over-violation-human-rights-democracy-and, 13 March 2017.