EU engages in dialogue with Turkey but continues to be soft on the Kurdish issue

Following the failed military coup in Turkey in mid-July, tension between EU and Turkey has run high. Turkey felt abandoned by EU and expected EU leaders to pay visits to the country immediately after the coup to express their solidarity with the country. EU on its part felt at unease with the wave of purges and arrests in the civil service in Turkey.

Turkey defended its actions as counter-measures against people belonging to the Gulenist movement that allegedly had been involved in the coup or had supported it. However, it was difficult for EU to understand such sweeping measures where tens of thousands of people were rounded-up, including journalists and lawyers, apparently for their views and not for any involvement in the coup.

The crux of the matter is the current Turkish anti-terrorism law which seems to allow for measures which would be out of question in any democracy respecting the rule of law and due process. The amendment of this law is also one of the few remaining benchmarks which Turkey has committed to fulfil to achieve a long-desired visa-liberalization agreement with EU.

However, in the aftermath of the failed military coup, Turkey is hardly inclined to amend its anti-terrorism law and has also announced that it will not do it. Without a visa-liberalization agreement, the EU – Turkey agreement on the migration and refugee problem is in jeopardy.

In view of a looming deadline in October to solve the visa-liberalization issue, a flurry of meetings between EU and Turkey took place last week.

On Thursday (1 September), both European Parliament President Martin Schultz and Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos visited Turkey and conveyed similar messages to their Turkish counterparts, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The both also visited the Turkish parliament that had been attacked and damaged in the military coup.

“What happened on 15 July was a deep shock for Europe and for the entire democratic world,” said Commissioner Avramopoulos. “It was not just an attack against the President, the government and the parliament. It was an attack against Turkish society, its freedom and democracy.”  

“I am here to reiterate and express once again the European Union's support for the President and the government and to condemn the acts of violence.”

He added diplomatically: “Both the EU and Turkey face similar threats of terrorism. It is by uniting and joining our forces and our approach that we are both stronger to jointly fight our common enemy – and our fight should never be at the expense of the fundamental rights of our citizens.”

While President Schultz also paid tribute to the Turkish democracy and expressed the European Parliament’s support to Turkey, he did not avoid including some implicit criticism against Turkey.

“The attempt against democracy was paramount and required exceptional measures to safeguard the democratic institutions. Yet the exceptional nature of the measures and of the state of emergency should not fail the test of proportionality and of the rule of law.”

 “We must also always remember, in Europe and beyond, that democracy is much more than the simple act of voting: democratic standards require pluralism, a vibrant press, a separation of power and free parliamentarians with an independent mandate.”

He also referred to the civil wars in and outside Turkey: “Turkey is facing momentous challenges: a deadly civil and proxy war at its doorstep, continuous turmoil in the South-East of the country, a looming terrorist menace both within and at its border, the refugee and migrant crisis, and a complex economic situation. Turkish citizens are showing remarkable resilience.”

European Parliament’s position

Earlier during last week the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament discussed the situation in Turkey, following a fact-finding mission to the country.

Foreign Affairs Committee chair Elmar Brok (EPP, DE) confirmed that during the visit, the EP delegation condemned the coup attempt, but said that “even before the coup d’état in Turkey, developments as regards the freedom of opinion were not acceptable and took Turkey farther away from EU”.

Turkey rapporteur Kati Piri (S&D, NL) emphasised that the traumatic effect of the coup attempt on Turkish society should not be underestimated. But the aftermath of the coup attempt involved “the arrest of thousands of people [...] who definitely were not involved in the coup”, she added.

“The rule of law, including access to lawyers and fair trials, must be respected and this will be a crucial test for democracy in Turkey,” she said.

A third meeting took place in Bratislava on Saturday (3 September) where EU’s foreign ministers and its foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini met the Turkish minister for EU affairs Ömer Celik. Like the other EU leaders, she also expressed EU’s solidarity and sympathy to the Turkish people and in addition defended the record of the EU:

“We were probably the first ones to react in defense of the legitimate and democratically elected institutions, starting from the Parliament, and we re-expressed today our support to the institutions and to the people of Turkey in a difficult moment,” she said.

“We understand very well that this can be a turning point for Turkey, also for the European Union and the relationship with Turkey,” she said and continued. “I would say that the main message that we all shared with our Turkish friend is first of all strong recommitment to dialogue. We need to talk less about each other and more with each other.”

She was hopeful on visa-liberalization and stressed the commitment of both sides to reach an agreement in time. In a reply to a journalist she declined to comment on whether there is a plan B in case Turkey would decide to cancel the migration agreement (if there won’t be any visa liberalization agreement).

Federica Mogherini told the press conference that some of the “issues of concern” that are central for all Member States and the entire European Union have been discussed “openly, constructively, with a reciprocal respect”. Without dwelling on any details in the discussion she listed those issues:

“We need to be so clear and so open about points on which we might have issues to discuss, namely the issues related to rule of law, the need to have fair trials, some issues related to media freedom and freedom of expression, and obviously the old debate about the death penalty that caused many worries in the European Union's public opinion.”

“There is no taboo in our dialogue, but we need to face issues in a friendly, open and constructive manner,” she said.

On the Kurdish issue Mogherini only said that “we all believe that restarting a political process to solve the Kurdish issue, including a dialogue with the HDP, would be a positive development, exactly as it was when President Erdogan started it a few years ago.” She was referring to the pro-Kurdish Peoples´ Democratic Party whose members risk losing their parliamentary immunity.

When Mogherini visited Turkey in January this year, she took a firm stand and called for “an immediate ceasefire and for the return to a peace process”. A planned visit to the southeast of Turkey, where heavy fighting between the Turkish army and the PKK is going on, was however postponed due to a last minute cancellation of a flight.

Since then the situation in the region has rather deteriorated with Turkey’s military incursion last month into Syria – officially to free a strategic border town held by the Islamic State but in reality to prevent Syrian Kurdish rebels against the Assad regime from winning ground in Syria. It should be added that the Syrian Kurdish rebels are considered an effective force against IS and Assad.

The civil war in Syria might go on for long time and even get worse with outside intervention – by US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah and now Turkey.

“Foreign sponsors do not just remove mechanisms for peace. They introduce self-reinforcing mechanisms for ever intensifying stalemate,” wrote Max Fisher recently in the International New York Times and referred to experts on civil wars.

The meeting in Bratislava was also used to prepare a so-called High Level Political Dialogue that is planned to take place in Ankara next Friday. It remains to be seen if the Kurdish issue will be raised at that meeting and if Mogherini will have the opportunity to visit south-east Turkey this time.

As regards the Kurdish issue, EU is faced with correcting a legacy that dates back one hundred years to the time of the First World War, when the two colonial powers Great Britain and France signed the so-called Sykes-Picot agreement and divided the spoils of the Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence and sectarian states while ignoring the Kurdish national aspirations.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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