Don’t sacrifice democracy; Turkey needs the EU

Don’t sacrifice democracy; Turkey needs the EU

“There is an increasing divergence rather than convergence between European and Turkish values – at least, those imposed on Turkey by its current government,” Robert Ellis wrote recently in the Jerusalem Post.

While it is true the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been distancing Turkey from universal values, it is also true the European Union has been distancing itself from its own values.

The European Commission’s president felt no shame when he said Europe should not “harp on” Turkey about its record on human rights, as he admitted the EU was dependent on Turks for solving the problem of refugee flows.

As a continuation of this mentality, the Nov. 29 Turkish-EU summit to revive the accession process and initiate cooperation on refugees took place only 48 hours after the arrest of two Turkish journalists, Can Dündar and Erdem Gül. Their case did not get the attention it deserved during the meeting. 

Why? Is it because there was no “consensus in the Turkish society about having a vibrant media,” as put by the EU’s envoy to Ankara? If this is the new EU line in defense of its complacency on Turkey’s democratic back-pedaling, that will be further proof the EU is being disloyal to its own principles.

“I think the expectations cannot be that media freedom is realized in Turkey from the outside. There needs to be a consensus in the population on the importance of having a vibrant and diverse media landscape and solidarity among journalists uniting around this principle, because media freedom cannot be realized from outside Turkey; it has to be part of the development of Turkish society,” Hansjörg Haber told daily Hürriyet.

This answer came in response to a question about the EU’s stance on Dündar and Gül. It is natural to say that reforms should come from within, but the envoy seemed to suggest the EU could not be critical on issues where Turkey lacks consensus. If so, then he is on the wrong line. Turkish society has lacked consensus on the rights of Kurds, for instance, and this has not caused the EU to refrain from criticizing Turkish governments on the Kurdish issue in the past. I hope he did not mean to say: “If Turkish society is not sensitive to press freedom, why should it be a matter of concern to us?”

Unfortunately, a similar type of thinking is reflected when some European diplomats underline the fact that, after all, the AKP received nearly half of the nation’s votes and that, faced by dire challenges, the EU needs to continue cooperating with Turkey.

First of all, no one has suggested Europe should avoid engaging with Turkey or punish and even suspend the accession process. On the contrary, a stronger engagement is necessary for Turkey’s democratic consolidation. But cooperation on issues like refugees and engaging in a more critical dialogue with Turkey on human rights are not mutually exclusive. It can go hand-in-hand. 

The assumption that “if we are critical of democratic back-pedaling Turkey will not sufficiently cooperate with us on the refugee issue,” for instance, is misplaced. 

Just as the EU needs Turkey to cooperate on the refugee crisis, Turkey also needs the EU, not only to stem the flow of refugees but also to counterbalance its foreign policy failures on many fronts. In fact, it needs the EU more than ever, as Russia has been added to the list of countries with which Turkey has strained relations.

Turkey’s revived interest to engage further with Europe is reflected in the latest round of discussions with the EU. The Turkish government could well have said “let’s cooperate on the refugee issue in return for visa free travel,” and not ever mentioned the accession process. On the contrary, it was the government which made its cooperation conditional to the reactivation of accession talks. It did so knowing very well that the first chapters to be opened, like chapters 23 and 24, will fall directly in the realm of human rights.

Finally, it is obviously up to the Turkish civil society to work to consolidate democracy and fight against human rights violations. It is also only natural to expect the EU to remain loyal to its own values and principles.