How to revive the spirit of Helsinki with the EU?

How to revive the spirit of Helsinki with the EU?

There are two important snapshots from the latest Reform Action Group (REG) meeting - which normally convenes the justice, foreign, interior and finance ministers as well as high-level bureaucrats - held by Turkey.

It was the very first time that the REG has been convened under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a bid to display Turkey’s highest level commitment to the EU process. Chaired by Erdoğan, the REG has underpinned the sense that the government regards the process not as a bureaucratic bid but as a political one.

The second important aspect is about the date of the meeting. It was held on May 9, Europe Day, in a symbolic but very important gesture. “It’s no coincidence that we are holding the sixth REG meeting on May 9, Europe Day,” read a communiqué released after the meeting.

May 9 is the day when the foundations of European integration had been laid through the Schuman Declaration in 1950. Picking this date for such an important meeting stands as an open demonstration of Turkey’s commitment in regards to the EU membership process.

Another symbolism the REG meeting touched upon is the fact that it’s been 20 years since Turkey was officially announced as a candidate for full membership to the EU at the Helsinki Summit.

“We are waiting for the EU’s support for the revival of the spirit of Helsinki,” Turkey said, according to the communiqué. Reviving accession negotiations, launching the works for the updating the customs union, fighting against all terror organizations, continuing the Turkey-EU high-level dialogue and resuming Turkey-EU summits are listed among the expectations of the Turkish government from Brussels.

In the eyes of this columnist, the revival of the Helsinki Spirit refers to return to the reform agenda just like in the early 2000s. Turkey had proven successful in those years that it has a huge reform capacity in the fields of democracy, economy and fundamental freedoms and a will to fulfill them. That was that will that granted the beginning of full membership negotiations in 2005.

However, the course of developments in the last five years has practically stalled Turkey’s membership process and it’s still hard to argue it will reverse soon. Still, some steps can be taken by both sides for continued engagement and readying suitable conditions for the future of ties.

As the REG suggests, visa liberalization seems to be an area on which Ankara and Brussels can accelerate works. The communiqué released following the REG meeting has characterized visa liberalization as a priority of the government with Erdoğan’s instructions to the ministers to speed up necessary works to this end. There are six remaining benchmarks to be delivered by Turkey before the EU Commission handles the rest of the procedure: Fight against corruption, judicial cooperation in criminal matters, cooperation with Europol, data protection legislation, anti-terrorism legislation, EU-Turkey readmission agreement and biometric passports.

One of the most important of these requires changes on Turkey’s anti-terror law, an issue the government has been reluctant in touching on since mid-2016. A work to change it is still underway through a working group made by officials from the justice and foreign ministries in cooperation with the Council of Europe.

The EU stresses that anti-terror laws in force in Turkey are very vague and needs to be aligned along the lines of the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

In the very recent days, a verdict by the Constitutional Court upon an individual application also tells the government that the current practices of the anti-terror law curb freedom of expression. A teacher, Ayşe Çelik, who had tried to draw people’s attention to the fight against terrorism and its impact on the lives of innocent people on a popular television program had been charged on terror propaganda by a local court in 2017.

The high court ruled that her statements had to be interpreted as a part of freedom of expression as what she said could not in any way be considered support to a terror organization or terrorist propaganda.

There are scores of similar cases which need to be handled by the top court. The best way to deal with them, however, is to undertake a reformist change on the law in line with European standards.

Reforming anti-terror law, revealing a new judicial reform strategy and announcing new mechanisms for strengthening human rights in the country would be the best short-term measures for a revival of the spirit launched 20 years ago in Helsinki.

Serkan Demirtaş, EU, Turkey, Helsinki