During a conference on Turkey’s accession to the EU on Friday (June 7) in Istanbul, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele condemned the Turkish Police’s excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators. As he noted, “peaceful demonstrations constitute a legitimate way for groups to express their views in a democratic society” whereas, “excessive use of force by police against these demonstrators has no place in such a democracy”. Attending the same conference, Turkish PM Tayyip Erdogan replied that police in Britain, France, Germany and especially Greece have also reacted in a similar manner, but the EU avoided criticising these countries’ governments in the way it has done with his.
Those of us following last week’s events in Turkey will surely agree with Commissioner Fuele. Turkish police have shown remarkable zeal in their violence against protesters, gratuitously tear-gassing everyone: young and old, streets with no protesters, and (as can be seen from the trajectories of the canisters in the previous link) even inside 4th and 5th-floor flats. The picture of Ceyda Sungur, the ‘woman in a red dress’ being tear gassed while posing no threat, helped debunk Istanbul police chief’s allegations that his forces would only use tear gas as a last resort. At the same time, it has also served to disqualify PM Erdogan’s claims that the protesters are ‘terrorists’ and that Twitter is a “menace to society”. The reactions of the EU and the European publics, therefore, come as no surprise when all of the aforementioned is taken into account.
I am not writing this, however, to eulogise the EU’s morality and concern(s) for human rights. Instead, I am prompted as much by Commissioner Fuele’s words as I am by PM Erdogan’s answer – in particular the latter’s reference to protests in Greece and the way Greek police handled those. Greek police have been known to use violence as gratuitously as Turkish police, but have somehow managed to escape being denounced by foreign media and European institutions (the only exception is the recent story that uncovered links to the neo-nazi party, Golden Dawn). Consider for example ‘the woman in red’ with the following pictures taken a few days after the assassination of Alexis Grigoropoulos by a police officer on December 6, 2008. The similarity is telling…
Despite Grigoropoulos’ assassination in 2008, and the questions it raised about the perceptions and self-image of a certain number of police officers regarding their role, virtually nothing has changed. As recently as October 2012, police used protesters as human shields, tortured detainees in police stations, and even directed crime victims to contact Golden Dawn instead of the police. With the exception of Amnesty International, occasional articles by The Guardian, and a report compiled by the Council of Europe’s commissioner Nils Muižnieks, police brutality in Greece has been met by apathy by both European politicians and media alike.
The same apathy and inaction was evident during the summer 2011 Syntagma protests, when the then imminent measures were about to be voted into law in order to secure the badly-needed loans from the EU and the IMF. Shortly after those events, I wrote elsewhere about the impunity with which anti-riot police were treated, both during as well as before Syntagma. Often, they exercise mindless violence against peaceful protesters; and/or try to cause grievous harm to citizens, rather than protect them (this is particularly indicative of the mentality of the security forces: no arrest, just violence…); and/or target and attack journalists; and/or try to frame peaceful protesters (at least 3 more cases have become high-profile since Chapman’s case); and/or offer cover to strange hooded figures that have been seen participating in or instigating violence; and/or instigate violence themselves in the worst manner, either by sending tear gas canisters down the subway, or gassing grocery stores and taking their rage out on the fruit stands, or following fleeing peaceful protesters in lanes and alleys and attacking everyone and everything in their path including their favourite sport of throwing blast grenades (like those that left journalist Manolis Kipreos deaf in both ears) inside tavernas and shops, or throwing stones back at the protesters rather than actually seeking to immobilise and arrest them.
None of these events were met by the indignation and remorse that Turkey’s events have generated. Even when international correspondents did report that the riot police’s behaviour “would not be tolerated in other parts of Europe”, European media and politicians shied away from statements that sought to criticise the Greek ruling elites’ handling of the protests. Even the BBC chose to show the more sensationalist instance of this clash, reporting that “one officer was hit with a petrol bomb!” and opting to withhold the fact that said officer (and others) was driving his motorcycle straight into the crowds, running over protesters who were fleeing the scene. I, like the vast majority of protesters, do not condone molotovs, stone-throwing, or street violence of the extent seen and experienced in both Syntagma and Taksim. But this condemnation concerns both the violence of extremists passing for ‘protesters’, as well as that used by police.
Which brings me back to Messrs Fuele and Erdogan. The latter’s political arrogance has now been recorded and analysed extensively, especially in the pages of openDemocracy (see, for instance, Nathalie Tocci’s recent article). Yet, if one compares the role and demeanour of riot police in both Greece and Turkey, one cannot uncritically condemn Mr Erdogan for his reply to Mr Fuele about EU’s double standards. The EU has long abandoned its efforts and commitment to promote and cement democracy and responsible governance inside each member state, giving way instead to hypocrisy and greed. As a result, the EU has deprived itself of the moral high ground it seeks to project when it comes to relations with non-EU territories. The multidimensional crisis that has engulfed it (financial at first, institutional and political later, as became apparent with Franco-German tensions or those between the IMF and the ECB more recently) has compounded this effect. Unless the EU revisits its strategies and values for good governance at home, it will always risk appearing as arrogant as Mr Erdogan when addressing audiences abroad.