Last week, on April, 14, the European Parliament (EP) voted on a highly critical report on Turkey calling the EU not to tie the joint refugee action plan to Turkey’s accession talks. The European Parliament (EP) seems like the only actor in the EU willing to speak out loud what everybody knows about Turkey: ‘the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the Turkish leadership’.
In an unsurprising move, Turkey’s EU Minister Volkan Bozkir declared the EP report ‘null and void’. The official reason for the rejection of the report by the Turkish side is the reference to the 1915 Armenian Genocide included in the text. Yet, besides the official reason, the government has several motivations to reject the report for what it acknowledges.
After stating its deep concerns about ‘the backsliding on respect for democracy and rule of law’ in Turkey, the EP report comments on a number of issues of deep concern: the intimidation and harassment of the opposition, academics and the independent media, the number of imprisoned journalists (currently among the highest in the world), bans on independent reporting and blocking of websites and social media, the misconduct of special security forces in Kurdish towns and cities, the increasing perception of corruption, ‘violent and illegal takeover of several Turkish newspapers’ and violence against women.
The report suggests that there is an urgent necessity for judicial reform in line with European values. Prepared by the European Parliament rapporteur on Turkey Kati Piri, the report calls European diplomats to continue their efforts to monitor the criminal cases against journalists, a move that recently annoyed Erdoğan regarding the Can Dündar and Erdem Gül case, urges the government to end personal attacks and intimidation of journalists by the members of the government and government-controlled media outlets, in order to start the Constitutional reform process to enable “secular, pluralistic, inclusive and tolerant society”, and to resume peace negotiations on the Kurdish issue.
As a point of fact, there is nothing new in the report. The 52-points of the report are all well known and frequently expressed by academics, critical journalists and commentators inside and outside Turkey. The only novelty is that Turkey is no longer used to hearing such criticisms from the EU. Since the Commission decided to delay the release of Turkey’s regular progress report in a move that clearly favoured the AKP, the relations between the Turkish government and the EU seem to enter into a new and unexpected period. The refugee deal between the EU and Turkey offered 3b euro in financial aid, opening of the accession negotiation chapters after a long break and the start of a process that would lift visa requirements for Turkish citizens.
Turkey has not all of a sudden endeared itself as a candidate country to the Commission or the member states sceptical of Turkey’s EU membership like Germany. In fact, the Turkish President and the government do not even play a rhetorical game of support for EU reforms. It is common to hear leaders from other candidate countries purportedly lauding democracy and reinstating their commitment to European norms and the accession process. The Turkish leadership has long stopped saying simply what Brussels wants to hear.
The new impetus in the EU-Turkey relations is actually motivated by the EU’s security concerns after the Paris and Brussels attacks and high-levels of public discontent for immigration amidst rising popularity of far-right political parties capitalising on this perception of threat by European voters. Overall, the securitisation of the humanitarian crisis caused by the huge inflow of refugees via Turkey has led the EU to remain silent about the violations of fundamental rights and freedoms. Turkey is more valuable as a strategic partner in dealing with refugee crisis instead of a candidate country destined to become a member state.
For this reason, the report by the Parliament is unique in the sense that in the middle of the hypocrisy surrounding the EU’s recent approach towards the Turkish government, the EP does not hesitate to openly acknowledge the rising authoritarianism in Turkey. In this sense, the report is also a criticism for the Commission and member states from within. The Parliament called the Commission and the Council ‘not to ignore internal developments in Turkey and to clearly stand up for respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights in Turkey’.
However, the question is how important the EP’s stance on candidate countries and particularly on Turkey is to an ordinary EU citizen and to the member states. Although it is the only organ where citizens can have direct influence, it is no secret that voters in the majority of member states are historically alienated from the Parliament. The European elections are considered second order elections by citizens who tend to consider the EP as an insignificant institution. It does not come as a surprise that the increasingly EU-apathetic, insecure and hostile member state publics –like the one that the Brexit camp successfully spurs in the UK- do not take seriously what the Parliament says regarding the accession countries.
Perhaps, it is this ‘secondary role’ attributed to the EP that makes it the most vocal actor within the European Union about violations of human rights, the rule of law and basic freedoms in Turkey and beyond. Despite the frequent declarations underlining the importance of human rights and basic freedoms in candidate countries, the EU lacks a coherent policy to promote them.
The Commission and member states undermine the entire EU enlargement process through an increasingly ineffective and ultimately self-defeating approach towards Turkey. Formal capabilities of the EP might remain restricted compared to the veto power of the European Council members or the executive powers of the Commission, yet it is highly important to acknowledge its proactive agenda-setting role in dealing with the recent refugee crisis and undemocratic governance in candidate countries.
Earlier in September 2015, the Parliament adopted a resolution on migration and refugees in Europe calling for the EU and its Member States to create humanitarian corridors and humanitarian visas, family reunification, private sponsorship schemes and flexible visa and asylum applications in addition to a compulsory resettlement programme. These additional tools are highly supported by the UNHCR but member states and the Commission have so far avoided discussing them. The Parliament has also started to independently monitor the allocation of 3 billion Euros in aid money for Refugee Facility in Turkey.
In the future, one of the areas in which the EP can assume an active role is the designation of safe countries of origin. The EP is still expected to take a position on the controversial proposal by the Commission establishing a common EU list of safe countries of origin. The proposal suggests that Turkey, along with Western Balkan countries constitutes a safe third country. Together with the amended Asylum Procedures Directive, the proposal allows member states to divide asylum seekers into different categories and apply a quick procedure to decide when an asylum applicant comes from a safe third country.
First, the EP’s power as co-legislator can be decisive. The principle of safe country in addressing the current refugee crisis is considered in breach of the universal right to asylum since it treats certain nationals of third countries less favourably than others. According to human rights organisations, the safe third country principle is highly likely to create an adverse procedural implementation against international principles, i.e. the rejection of claims without individual scrutiny, with regards to asylum-seekers from safe third countries.
Moreover, the Parliament’s stance on the proposed list of safe countries of origin is also very important. The criteria to designate a country as safe foresees the presence of a stable democratic system, with no significant breach of human rights or degrading treatment and punishment of refugees in the country. Given the situation of vulnerable minorities and restrictive measures taken through curfews in recent months in the southeast of Turkey, continuing violations of the rule of law and deteriorating conditions of democracy and freedom of speech, proposal by the Commission designating Turkey as a safe country of origin is very questionable.
Can the European Parliament become the forerunner of human rights promotion and protection in third countries in midst of hypocritical and self-defeating attitude of the Commission and the European Council towards Turkey? Can it uphold norms and values of Europe?
The European Parliament has definitely a legal and moral responsibility to make use of its powers to ensure that EU legislation remain in accordance with international principles of refugee protection and indiscriminate right to asylum, despite some member states’ inclination to violate fair and effective procedures. The European Parliament should not hesitate to openly criticise and request a review of relevant EU regulations and agreements with third countries, like the EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan, by the European Court of Justice. Finally, in the future Parliament should also consider further reinforcing the independent work of MEPs on candidate countries and enlargement policy, while developing more systematic and transparent ways of working with independent civil society organisations in these countries.
On the negative side, we should not forget that the Parliament has its own strange structure and procedural anomalies lavishly funding the most notorious Eurosceptic groups and racist members including the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group of Front National and Dutch Party for Freedom, the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group consisting of UKIP and Austrian FPÖ, and finally the neo-fascist Golden Dawn which recently referred to Turks as ‘dirty and polluted dogs’ during a plenary session.
It is also unfortunate that the report on Turkey reads like another dull EU statement when it comes to the Joint Action Plan for refugees calling for implementation in line with international obligations on both sides. The European Parliament has not pushed enough to use its budgetary and legislative power to pressure member states and the Commission to shift away from outsourcing refugee protection to third countries . What is still missing in the report is a genuine evaluation of the potential humanitarian consequences of the EU-Turkey joint action plan.
Since the refugee crisis started, the EU has been accused of shunning way from its international obligations towards refugees and its role as democracy promoter in Turkey, not only by critics in Turkey but also by several commentators in Europe. Above all, who can disagree that it is highly significant that at least one EU institution stands against what has seemingly become a common practice of undermining the credibility of conditionality and European norms and values? The works of individual parliamentarians like Kati Piri might be even more valuable as a wakeup call to the EU in the long term. Very unfortunately and undesirably, given the discretionary implementation of law and the oppression of academics, independent journalists and media, such reports might be the only reliable sources of information on the state of affairs in Turkey in the future.