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The EU and the Turks: tough times ahead

Brutal assaults by the Turkish police on protesters in Istanbul and around the country during the last few days have invited a few expressions of ‘concern’ from EU capitals. Unfortunately, the EU’s ‘concern’ about the Turks’ human rights is not substantiated by corresponding policy.  

Lucia Najslova
3 June 2013

The millions that joined demonstrations in Turkey this weekend cared for far more than the fate of the park. A week does not go by without the governing party proposing and adopting measures that circumscribe public space and impose a very restrictive understanding of who is a good citizen.

 A decade ago, the AKP embarked on a project of political inclusion and reversed a number of authoritarian practices adopted by previous governments. To name a few - it put an end to the headscarf ban in public places, it started talking more openly about the fate of Turkey’s Armenians and made effort to reach peace with the Kurds. As a result, the AKP has  managed to extend its voting base beyond the conservative core concerned with freedom of religious expression. Yet, it now seems that the government has become a mirror image for the exclusionary policies of its predecessors and the EU's lax approach to accession negotiations has only boosted Erdogan's confidence in clamping down on dissent. The jailed journalists, self-censored media, PM Erdogan’s sermons on a number of lifestyle-related issues including the number of children a woman should have, and alcohol use – all this has mobilized dissent not only among those who traditionally vote for the opposition, but, more importantly, among the AKP’s own voters.

A few years ago the EU opened accession negotiations with Turkey. Back then, in 2005, the talk of the EU’s ‘transformative power’ was still in fashion. The accession process was to help Turkey expand its zone of liberties and the EU, on the other hand, would increase security on its southeastern border and welcome one more ‘free’ country on board.

Soon enough, however, it became clear that not all EU stakeholders entered the talks with honest intentions. As clichéd as it may sound, Turkey’s ‘Muslimness’ proved a major stumbling block and until today merely one out of 35 negotiating chapters has been (provisionally) closed, while almost a half is blocked by vetos of the Council or individual member states. The politically correct EU-peans hide behind the Cyprus conflict and France even blocked several negotiating chapters on the grounds that these were ‘too closely linked to membership’. Those in the EU who had a more favourable view of Turkey’s EU membership were either politically weak or too inept to persuade the stronger players. Or maybe they cared only about looking polite. Who can say today ‘we don’t care about human rights’? Not even Bashar Assad. But it is political action that matters, not rhetoric. In the last few days EU Enlargement Commissioner Fule and High Representative Ashton have issued a number of statements denouncing the violence In Turkey and calling for restraint. But why should the Turks consider their concern sincere?

By now Turks have (understandably) grown increasingly allergic to any EU declarations and the accession process is largely deemed a bit of a circus. Yet amid the talk about public opinion polls indicating that Turks have lost interest in the Union, the debate about Turkey’s ‘axis shift’, or remarks by some of Turkey’s top representatives that the country would perhaps be better off without EU membership - one important fact has been forgotten. It was the EU that turned the Turks down, not the other way around. The Turks are still interested in the Union – but in one which is really interested in them as well. Not the one that issues statements but the one that is willing to include Ankara in its ranks.

You may argue that opening the chapters after the police crackdown would send the wrong message. Yet, what kind of message did we send when we blocked the chapters for being ‘too close to membership’? What kind of message did we send when we asked Turkey to make bigger concessions on the Cyprus issue than Cyprus itself? If the EU wants to be taken seriously as a human rights protector, then a good way to proceed is to lift the pointless veto on the negotiating chapters as soon as possible. Only then can we hope that in critical moments such as the ongoing protests, someone will take Brussels’ calls for restraint seriously.

The EU could matter much more if it stopped excluding Turkey because of its ‘Muslimness’ and instead used the leverage of the accession process to prevent human rights violations. Because the violence we see today could have been prevented if only the EU-peans did not resign on their commitment to the accession process and did not give the Turkish government a free reign over its citizens. The analogy with EU relations with Mubarak-era Egypt and Gaddafi’s Libya is obvious. AKP’s exercise of power is not that of the excesses of Arab dictators. But it does not fulfil the democracy and human rights standards the party so often preaches about either. The EU should now face the inconvenient truth: we could have avoided this.

Yes, the European Union is not perfect. Yes, police forces act violently also in EU member states. Yes, human rights are often disregarded in the European Union. But one bare fact remains: an average EU citizen has a much bigger chance of having their rights respected than a non-EU citizen. We can discuss whether this is Orientalist, EU-centric or the plain truth, but this discussion would be more sincere if we first lifted the many pointless vetos on chapters in Turkey’s accession negotiations. That would be a really convincing proof of our care about the human rights situation in Turkey. Unfortunately, the Turkophobes in the Union might read the present turmoil as yet more evidence that ‘they’ are not European and hence should not aspire to enter ‘our’ ranks. And so we’ll most probably continue with declarations, cynicism pure and simple.

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