EU and Turkey discussed issues of common interest and concern at a High Level Political Dialogue meeting in Ankara last Friday (9 September). The meeting took place after a flurry of visits by EU leaders to Turkey to ease the tension between the two sides after the failed military cup and to reach agreements on urgent issues, such as visa-liberalisation for Turkish citizens.
EU Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn met Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and EU Minister Ömer Çelik. The EU leaders attended a ceremony for the victims of the attempted coup, reiterated EU’s condemnation of the attack on Turkey’s democratically elected institutions and expressed EU´s solidarity with the Turkish people.
While all this certainly contributed to a positive atmosphere it remains to be seen if the meeting will pave the way forward for any agreements between EU and Turkey on outstanding issues. Little of substance was revealed at the following press conference. What took place in Ankara appears as an exercise in silent diplomacy with no guarantee for success.
“I could say that the key element on which we agreed to work, our common guidelines, is that we talk more to each other and a little bit less about each other, showing full respect, reciprocal respect, being absolutely clear on what we agree on and what could be elements where we need to discuss more, and most of all in a constructive way, always,“ Mogherini said at the press conference.
On visa-liberalisation, she said that the work goes one and referred to a “very constructive exchange” between President Erdoğan and the EU Presidents Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker at the margins of the recent G20 summit in China. Hahn added that it is possible to find a solution, possibly with the support of the Council of Europe, but that the timing was up to Turkey.
According to Turkish sources, Turkey was asking for a new roadmap for visa-liberalisation with a view of finding a compromise on the issue of changes in its anti-terrorism law. At the time of the writing, the European Commission declined to comment on this. It seems unlikely that a Turkish commitment for future changes would be enough to start visa-liberalisation already in October.
Crackdown on “Gulenists”
At the press conference, Mogherini and Hahn avoided any open criticism of the purges and arrests in the Turkish civil service after the failed coup. Both underlined that the discussions were “frank, open, constructive, and respectful” but in the absence of any joint statement there was no way of knowing what was actually said.
“We had a very in-depth discussion on how to make sure that defending democracy is done and is pursued with the full commitment to democracy, human rights and rule of law,” said Mogherini at the press conference.
In the absence of an independent press in the country and with many journalists arrested, a majority of the Turkish public believes that the Gulenist movement, named after the cleric Fethullah Gulen who lives in exile in the US, was behind the coup. What is probably true is that the Gulenist movement had “infiltrated” the Turkish civil service and the military.
The Gulenist movement is a Muslim religious organization that had invested heavily in schools and universities in Turkey. After the failed coup, 1000 private schools and 51 private universities were closed. Whether the movement represents a moderate or radical brand of Islam, as the Turkish government claims, is difficult to say.
The fact remains that more than 50 000 people have been dismissed since the failed coup and 30 000 people have been suspended from their jobs. It is implausible that all these people and those who have been arrested, even for just sending their children to Gulenist-run schools, had been involved in the coup.
40 000 people were detained and half of them are still imprisoned. Family members of those arrested are targeted and feel threatened. Was this discussed at the Ankara meeting?
Turkey probably told EU that “we need to wait until the end of the judicial process”. This however presupposes that EU can trust the Turkish judiciary and that suspects are not judged according to the current anti-terrorism law with its wide definition of terrorism. For the time being there is no indication that Turkey will amend the law, one of the few remaining benchmarks that Turkey needs to meet for visa-liberalisation.
Opening new chapters
Both Mogherini and Hahn underlined that Turkey is still a candidate country. Hahn added that this implies that Turkeys needs to meet high standards and align itself gradually to these standards, especially in the area of rule of law, without going into any details. “We have been reassured lately that Turkey is committed to respect rule of law standards,” Hahn said.
He hoped that the two acquis chapters (number 23 and 24) on the judiciary and fundamental rights respectively justice, freedom and security “could be open as soon as possible” but added that a solution to the Cyprus issue must be found. The opening of the chapters is pending such a solution but the Commission itself considered in the past that these chapters were too difficult to start with.
The assumption was that EU should start with the “easy” chapters. For this reason negotiations with Turkey on judiciary reform were never opened. The Turks complained that they were not given benchmarks or even information about what to do. This of course was a weak excuse for not implementing reforms that Turkey anyway needed to carry out for domestic reasons.
Also without formal negotiations, the Commission described the gaps and problems in quite detail in its annual progress reports. But probably the situation today would have looked different if negotiations on these chapters, which require maximum time for implementation, would have started in the beginning of the accession process in 2005 when Turkey was in the right reform mood.
In the current situation, EU and Turkey need each-other more than ever. Turkey is in a state of emergency, where parliament legislation has been replaced by government decrees, and has distanced itself even more from European standards. An opening of the rule of law chapters would send a positive signal and might gradually bring the reform process back on track.
Solving the Kurdish issue
As regards the Kurdish issues, Mogherini did not sound hopeful that it would be solved any day soon. She repeated that EU considers the Kurdistan Workers´ Party (PKK) as a terrorist organization and referred to “significant actions taken against the PKK by EU.”
“We believe all violence and terrorist attacks have to be stopped, and arms laid down and a political process started. And the European Union obviously will be ready to accompany this process,” Mogherini said. What was absent was a call for an immediate cease fire and a statement, like the one she made on the civil war in Syria, that there is no military solution.
Since July 2015, a civil war is raging in Kurdish-populated south-east Turkey, close to the border with Syria and far away from media coverage. After a promising peace process, the situation suddenly deteriorated last year because of the Islamic State and the Turkish elections, and both sides accuse each-other for the outbreak of hostilities.
International Crisis Group writes that since the breakdown of the two-and-a-half year ceasefire in July 2015, “the PKK conflict in Turkey has entered one of its deadliest chapters in more than three decades, devastating communities in Turkey’s majority Kurdish south east and striking at the heart of the country’s largest metropolitan centres”.
According to Crisis Group’s open-source casualty tally, last updated on 1 September 2016, at least 1,958 people have been killed in clashes between Turkish security forces and the PKK. The figures include 330 confirmed civilians and 219 youth of unknown affiliation who could not be positively identified as civilians or militants but the casualties could be higher.
To this should be added the civilian destruction and humanitarian disaster. Turkish military placed entire towns under curfews and shelled residential areas, destroying thousands of buildings and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. The destruction was recently admitted by the Turkish prime minister who announced a massive investment plan to rebuild the south-east of the country.
Turkey claims that it is carrying out an anti-terrorist operation against PKK and has vowed to exterminate PKK. A return to the negotiating table is apparently not on its agenda now but EU could play a mediating role and pressure both sides to stop the fighting and declare a cease fire.
The Brussels Times