How can Turkey take the EU seriously after Europe’s show with Sisi?

How can Turkey take the EU seriously after Europe’s show with Sisi?

Anyone committed to universal human rights must be filled with a feeling of utter disappointment looking at pictures coming from Egypt’s Sharm Al-Sheik: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and King Salman of Saudi Arabia standing between European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the first joint European Union/Arab League summit.

The summit takes place exactly five days after Egypt executed nine suspected Muslim Brotherhood members for the 2015 assassination of the country’s top prosecutor. Rights groups have, however, said that some of the accused were tortured to confession during their trial. Few would find hard to believe this claim as human rights conditions have extremely deteriorated under Sisi’s presidency.

Are we supposed to feel relieved that Saudi Arabia was represented by King Salman rather than Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is believed to have been behind the brutal murder in Istanbul of dissident Jamal Khashoggi? Perhaps he was the one to decline the invitation as he preferred not to interrupt his tour in Asia where he is busy distributing money to improve his tarnished reputation.

The day Egypt executed the death sentences, Turkish prosecutors requested life imprisonment for 16 people, including Osman Kavala, charged with seeking to overthrow the government in the 2013 Gezi Park protests. The same day the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament called for freezing accession talks with Ankara over its bad human rights record. The European Parliament will vote this call on March 11, and Kati Piri, the parliament’s Turkey rapporteur, said she expected a large majority to vote for the suspension of accession talks.

Turkey cannot be compared to any Arab or Middle Eastern country. It is a founding member of the Council of Europe and a candidate seeking to join the EU. But human rights are universal values. Although it is understandable that institutions like the EU need to adopt country-specific approach in problematic countries in order to improve the situation, it is obvious that this time the EU has failed to fine-tune its approach toward Arab countries by going ahead with a summit only few days after highly contested executions.

While curbing migration stands as the most important motive behind the summit, standing against Chinese and Russian moves to fill the vacuum left in the Middle East by the U.S. is another according to news stories.

Leaving the vacuum to be filled by Russia and China which are indifferent to human rights violations is obviously not an option. Yet the effort to prevent China and Russia making inroads should not come at the expense of turning a blind eye to human rights violations. This is more so also in terms of the cooperation to curb illegal migration.

European opinion leaders should not fall into the error of looking at the Arab Spring as a failed test case to transition to democracy in the Middle East. And they should not think that supporting the Arab autocratic regimes will curb terrorism and migration. It is these regimes’ anti-democratic practices that feed the causes of terrorism and migration.

It is essential that the EU remains engaged with Arab countries, but a more significant dose of human rights conditionality needs to be introduced.

When it comes to Turkey, suspending accession talks (which are de facto suspended anyway) while advocating updating the customs union represents the same crooked view adopted by the EU towards the Middle East.

It would mean “turning a blind eye to democratic deficit while continuing economic [and migration] cooperation,” because the official suspension of talks will mean the end of any possible conversation issues of democratic deficit. The equation should not be put in the sense of “improving democracy otherwise accession talks will officially be suspended.” But it should be to “improve democracy and let’s revive accession talks.”

The EU cannot change Turkey’s behavior with the first position. Especially when its top leaders appear in photo opportunities with Arab dictators. This will be interpreted by Turkey’s ruling elites as inconsistency and double standards. How can the Turkish president respect and take seriously the EU’s criticism when he sees the pictures coming out of Sharm Al-Sheik.

Some may remind at this point how Erdoğan sharply criticized Sisi for the executions and said: “Of course, we are going to be told that it is a decision of the judiciary, but there, justice, elections, all that, are codswallop.”

Turkey as well hits back at criticism on so many people being in prison by saying it is the rulings of the country’s independent judiciary — something that is seriously challenged by activist groups.

So Erdoğan could be criticized of being inconsistent on democracy. But, after all, Turkey is not a member of the EU. Some could argue it is indeed because of these types of inconsistencies that it is still not a member.

In a way you can explain this inconsistency. But when it comes to the EU’s inconsistency and double standards, can you apply the same logic?

Turkey, European Union, Diplomacy