Rights activists against official suspension of Turkey-EU talks

Rights activists against official suspension of Turkey-EU talks

“We have met with a dozen human rights activists from Turkey and not one of them asked to suspend the accession process. We cannot assume to know better than they do,” one official from the European Commission recently said.

Of course Turkish human rights defenders don’t see any benefit to a possible official ending of Ankara’s membership talks. The EU remains one of the main hopes of many. Only genuine engagement between Turkey and the EU will relieve the increasingly oppressive measures enacted by the government against civil society organizations.

For the time being, an official suspension of membership talks seems to be off the table - at least until spring, when the European Commission is due to issue its progress report. The EU summit decided that last week in Brussels. In order to assure the public that they have not remained totally indifferent to the deterioration of democratic standards in Turkey, the EU leaders asked the Commission to either cut or reorient pre-accession funds earmarked for Turkey.

Such a decision, if put into practice, will have no effect on the Turkish government. It may have been taken to appease European public opinion, but it will ultimately be a small price to pay for the Turkish government if it allows it to silence critical voices in Europe while continuing to crack down on democratic dissent at home.

Meanwhile, Turkish politicians continue to visit Brussels. Next month, both the energy minister and the transport minister will meet their counterparts at the European Commission. Later on, Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek will visit Brussels to hold a meeting on economic issues. A number of other ministers will accompany Şimşek at the meeting, which is expected to take place in the first week of December.

Put simply, the EU’s “we’ll cut funds but continue to have some kind of dialogue” signaling is mixed, confusing and will not work. If the European capitals really want to see changes, there have to be similar meetings at all levels and there has to be serious engagement.

There are many complaints that Turkey is moving away from the EU. But with no accession talks, no updating of the Customs Union, and a cut in funds, the EU has created a “push” – rather than a “pull” - factor.

There has to be dialogue at all levels, especially at the highest level. European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker should talk more often with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. What is keeping them apart? It cannot be their own constituencies, as they no longer represent their countries.

Why has there not been a summit meeting between the 28 EU members and Erdoğan? If they can invite the authoritarian Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to the Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit due to take place next month - even though he was not invited to the previous four summits - they can also hold a summit with Erdoğan, the leader of a country with which there are comparatively more strategic issues at stake than Belarus.

If they fear the public reaction from such a meeting, they should also be frank about voicing criticism directly to the Turkish president during the summit. This will compensate for their tepid reaction to the July 2016 coup attempt, which contributed to Erdoğan’s deepening distrust of Europe. Holding a summit that recognizes President Erdoğan as the EU’s legitimate interlocutor will also have an effect on Turkey’s paranoid security establishment, which has been waging a war on democratic dissent.

If Erdoğan uses such an opportunity to consolidate his power by bragging about bringing the EU to heel, that should not be a concern to Europeans. It should instead simply be a problem for Turkish opposition parties, so let them deal with it.

Avoiding Erdoğan only makes the security establishment even more relentless. The less dialogue there is, the more free it feels to accelerate democratic backpedaling.

Barçın Yinanç, European Union,