Turkey-EU: Any further progress is possible?

‘Turkey’s Justice and Development Party [AKP] government failed to take convincing steps to address the country’s worsening domestic human rights record and democratic deficit.’

This is the brief summary of the latest snapshot of Turkey taken by Human Rights Watch (HRW), which published its 24th annual report on human rights practices in more than 90 countries. The details on Turkey, on which the world has been keeping its eye, for obvious reasons, make, as expected, gloomy reading.

Coincidentally, the report landed as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was paying a closely watched visit to Brussels in an attempt to freshen Turkey’s relations with the EU. But, for very apparent reasons, due to the political maneuvering and tension in Turkey, the visit has turned into a “make or break” point for the painful European Union accession negotiations.

Disappointment with the performance of the ruling AKP is now a solid part of the picture. “In office for three terms since 2002, and enjoying a strong parliamentary majority, the ruling AKP has demonstrated a growing intolerance of political opposition, public protest, and critical media,” says HRW.

The oppression of free speech and marginalization of diverse opinions is strongly highlighted by HRW. Much of its criticism about the weakness of the media is directed towards not only the government but, as expected, the media conglomerates.   

“The mute or biased coverage of the Taksim Gezi protests in much of Turkey’s media highlighted the reluctance of many media companies to report news impartially when it conflicts with government interests. In the course of the year, scores of media workers, among them highly respected mainstream journalists and commentators writing critically of the government in different media, were fired from their jobs.”

In another section, HRW also points to violations of freedom of expression: “Turkey continued to prosecute journalists in 2013, and several dozen remain in jail. The trial continued of 44 mainly Kurdish journalists and media workers (20 in detention since December 2011) for alleged links to the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), a body connected to the PKK.”  

The graft probe, the demotions and replacements of police and the intimidation of the judiciary in Turkey since mid-December did not make it into the report, but if they had, this would have only added to the gloom.

But the AKP government and its ostrich-like lackeys in the media should know that with the backward steps being taken, they are pushing the country away from the Copenhagen criteria. Many observers and devoted friends of Turkey in Europe are swift to catch up with the developments and do not mince their words.

Marietje Schaake, a Dutch liberal from the European Parliament (EP) is one of them. In a statement, she said: “The separation of powers is under immense pressure in Turkey and the rule of law is not upheld. This crisis also impacts the relations between the European Union and Turkey, because measures taken, such as political intervention with the judicial branch, are not in line with European rules… Because of the mistrust and polarization, an investigation led by an international committee of experts would have the greatest effect. The European Commission should propose this to Erdoğan and international partners. The problems are now so immense that they need to be investigated independently. The European Commission should propose this to Erdoğan and international partners.”

Such a reaction is understandable, but I am not sure whether it will have a positive impact. Given the spitefulness of Erdoğan and the turbulent sociopolitical scene in the EU, which serves as a pretext for his government, these kinds of proposals will be seen as useful anti-EU material in the upcoming election campaigns.

The immense dilemma is the opposite directions that such snapshots of Turkey suggest: One way would end in a scary Mukhabarat state model, and the other, still open-ended, would lead to the heart of the EU. What makes Schaake’s proposal so interesting is that it leads to the question: Would it be possible to link its content to the very relevant Chapter 23 on the judiciary and work to open this chapter? Is there any hope at all?