The EU has a choice – suspend Turkey’s accession process

As post-coup purges erode democracy, the EU must take a stand, Dilek Kurban says in an interview.

Purges after the July 2016 coup have not abated – just last week 13,000 police officers were suspended and a TV station closed. What actions are available to the European Union to halt the further weakening of democracy in Turkey?

Dilek Kurban: There is every indication that these purges will continue and expand in their scope. Kurdish politicians, peace activists and academics are particularly vulnerable. President Erdogan has explicitly stated that he intends to convert Turkey’s political system into a presidential one. This requires his AKP (Justice and Development Party, Turkey’s largest party) to have a qualified parliamentary majority, which in turn requires the ‘elimination’ of the Kurdish opposition from the Turkish Parliament. Following the lifting of parliamentary immunity of the leaders and deputies of the pro-minority and pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) last May, the imprisonment of Kurdish opposition leaders is no longer purely hypothetical. Given the urgency of the situation and Erdogan’s intention to continue to defy democracy and the rule of law, anything short of formally suspending the accession process to the EU would be ineffective. The EU should place Turkey back into the pre-accession process and not reopen the negotiations until and unless the government truly fulfills the required Copenhagen political criteria. And, of course, the EU – perhaps better to say Chancellor Merkel – should immediately halt negotiations over the refugee deal with Turkey. Such a deal with such a government should have never been on the table to begin with. It’s past time the EU lives up to its principles and itself abides by democratic values.

In what specific ways has the coup in Turkey eroded progress the country had already made towards EU accession?

Dilek Kurban: Turkey has for a long time been rolling back progress. Already in 2005 and 2006, the government conferred broad powers to law enforcement and introduced a vague definition of terrorism. This legal framework enabled law enforcement to use lethal force in peaceful demonstrations and to prosecute human rights defenders, journalists and political dissidents on terrorism charges for expressing non-violent opinions. These changes, introduced after the EU opened accession talks with Turkey in 2005, enabled a massive police crackdown of peaceful protestors in Gezi Park and the pre-trial detention of thousands of Kurdish activists, lawyers and elected municipal politicians in 2009. In the latter case, defendants were charged with leadership or membership in the PKK-controlled Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), simply for their non-violent demands of mother tongue education and autonomy in the Kurdish region. KCK is a pan-Kurdish umbrella group that includes the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan – PKK), which is regarded as a terrorist organization by Turkey, a number of Western countries, including Germany, and the EU.

What is new in the post-failed coup era is that the government widened its probes to former allies, individuals it deems to be followers of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, in exile in the US, and, most importantly, reintroduced the emergency regime it had abolished in 2002 to fulfil the EU’s accession criteria. Only this time, it broadened its geographical scope from the Kurdish region to the entire country. Moreover, rule by executive decree, which confers on the government de facto legislative powers, has become the norm under the guise of “combatting putschism.” A method increasingly used by the AKP in the recent years to curtail the independence of regulatory authorities in banking, media etc., rule by decree has now become systematic. It is inherently anti-democratic because it enables the executive to bypass the elected Parliament. It is also against the rule of law, because decrees adopted within an emergency regime are not subject to judicial review, including by the Constitutional Court.

From a legal perspective, what does this mean for Turkey’s future prospects to join the EU?

Dilek Kurban: Turkey’s prospects to join the EU were already non-existent, long before the events of last summer. And this, I have to say, was due not only to the authoritarian legal regime and anti-democratic government policies in Turkey. Certainly, Turkey was never qualified to join the EU, even at the peak of reforms in 2002-2004. Despite a number of amendments, the country is still governed by a constitution drafted by the military junta after the 1980 military intervention. And there was no reason to believe that elected civilian governments are inherently supportive of democracy and the rule of law; Turkey’s past half a century experience with democratic transition gives us ample reason to believe otherwise.

On the other hand, there was a moment of opportunity for real progress in the early-mid 2000s when the EU had substantial political leverage on the newly elected AKP government, which desperately needed external support to establish its legitimacy vis-à-vis the military which was still a very strong political force in Turkey.  Let us remember what the EU and its leading member states did at the time. Soon after opening the accession talks, the EU blocked the negotiations over eight chapters containing its rules (acquis) in various policy fields, over Turkey’s non-recognition of Cyprus. This was followed by the unprecedented unilateral decisions by two member states – France and Cyprus– to introduce additional vetoes over the opening of select chapters. At the same time, critical voices within the EU – first and foremost the Merkel government in Germany and the Sarkozy government in France – categorically opposed Turkey’s accession, even if it were to fulfil the accession criteria.

Thus, while Turkey had never qualified for accession, there was a brief period when it was making real progress and was susceptible to external pressure. The EU made two major mistakes back then. It gave a premature and unprecedented decision to open accession negotiations based on the Commission’s conclusion that Turkey had “sufficiently fulfilled” (instead of merely “fulfilled”) the Copenhagen criteria, and then immediately sent the signal that Turkey would never be a member, no matter the level of its democracy and rule of law.

A decade later, the EU has virtually no leverage over Turkey and is facing the prospect of its dissolution, the little pro-Turkey public opinion that existed in Europe has diminished, and the AKP government seems to believe it does not “need the EU” but rather vice versa (validated by Chancellor Merkel’s dealings in the context of the refugee deal). In this climate, a discussion over Turkey’s chances for EU accession seems rather futile.

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