Now is the time to talk about Turkey’s democratic deficit

Now is the time to talk about Turkey’s democratic deficit

The finalization of the refugee deal between Turkey and the European Union marks a new phase in the relationship between the 28-nation bloc and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

For a long time, Turkey’s accession process remained frozen and each European country preferred to conduct its own bilateral relations with Turkey. As Turkey was no longer treated as a candidate country, its democratic backpedaling was completely ignored.

Those who are criticizing the refugee deal, arguing that EU is ignoring its own values by striking an agreement with a government that shows signs of authoritarianism, should see that ironically, it is thanks to the refugee deal that Turkey’s democratic deficit is now back on the European agenda. 

Prior to the deal, European capitals had neither the wish nor the leverage to stop Turkey from sliding into further authoritarianism. Now at least there is a working relationship and a structured and institutionalized dialogue between Turkey and the EU, within the framework of which the long forgotten political criteria can be tackled.

Germany and like-minded countries desperately want to see this deal work. That should not make them reticent. Turkey needs to see this deal work just as much. The AKP government remains an isolated actor regionally and internationally. It needs to work with a partner like the EU to break that isolation.

The government will therefore be more open to criticism on fundamental rights like freedom of expression and will not want to jeopardize the deal, which comes with a big reward for the government: Visa free travel for Turks. More than 70 criteria, including political criteria, will have to be fulfilled by Turkey. The EU must make sure that these political criteria are not ignored. This is one area where the EU has leverage.

By the way, the fact that the Greek Cypriots have still not lifted their veto on certain chapters has only strengthened the hands of Turkey. Unable to deliver on opening more than one chapter, the EU would feel forced to deliver on visa free travel. 

If Turkey were to deliver on curbing the numbers of illegal transits to Greece, the month of June will be a witness to intensive negotiations between Turkey and the EU on whether the government fulfilled the criteria for visa free travel or not. Let’s hope that the discussions will not only concentrate on technical but also political criteria.

The European critics of the deal say the agreement comes at a high cost to Europe. But they ignore that it comes at a high cost to Turkey too. What Turkey has pledged to do is no easy thing. It is currently fighting a war on terrorism on two fronts: One with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the other with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In addition, Turkey’s security and intelligence forces will have to divert their time and energy on human traffickers. It will have to take the necessary measures so that economic migrants don’t find it easy to cross over to Greece, and for all the refugees that will be returned to Turkey it will have to create new centers. 

That is one of the areas where human right activists are voicing their concerns. Turkey does not grant official refugee status to those crossing into the country from its south and east, so there are concerns that Turkey will return those who have the right to asylum to their country of origin - in violation of international norms and practices. 

While those concerns are not baseless, the deal should still not be seen as an additional factor that will further aggravate the situation in Turkey. On the contrary, even before the deal was on the agenda the international community lacked any leverage on Turkey to lift its caveat on the 1951 Geneva Convention and thus change its policy towards refugees coming from the south and east.

At least now there is going to be a process where Turkey will come under scrutiny regarding its treatment of refugees. In that process it will have to learn how to differentiate between an asylum seekers and economic migrants. That will put Ankara’s practices more in line with international law. The deal will thus help Turkey transform from a transit country into an asylum receiving country. 

Whether the government is actually aware of this remains to be seen.