The European Parliament’s vote will not help democrats in Turkey

The European Parliament’s vote will not help democrats in Turkey

On July 6, when members of the European Parliament were casting their vote asking for a freeze of Turkey’s membership talks with the European Union, main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was on the 22nd day of his march from Ankara to Istanbul. On the same day, thousands joined his march calling for “justice,” in protest at the democratic backsliding that has accelerated since the July 2016 coup attempt.

Just hours before the vote, on the night of July 5, a number of prominent human rights advocates who were in a meeting in one of the Princes Islands near Istanbul were detained by police. Their family could obtain information about their whereabouts only at noon the next day.

It was all very reminiscent of the 1990s. Back then, whenever Turkey came under the spotlight in the international community, the security apparatus would take an action that made things even worse. With one spectacular move, like the detention of a prominent activist, they therefore nullified all the efforts directed to prove that Turkey was moving toward a democratic track. 

In 1995 the European Parliament decided to vote in favor of the customs union with Turkey. Despite the democratic deficit in the country, it made an investment in the prospect of democratic reform in Turkey.

By the time the detention of the human rights activists became known to the public last week, the vote in the Strasbourg parliament was already finished. The MEPs probably did not know at that stage that the activists would be accused of plotting a coup, targeted by the pro-government media as “traitors” and “terrorists.” 

They would also not have known that more than 1.5 million people from all over Turkey would come to Istanbul on July 9 to witness Kılıçdaroğlu end his march with a “justice rally” in Turkey’s largest city. 

I’m not sure whether the MEPs were aware of the detention of the human rights activists at the time of their voting and I’m not sure whether it affected their decision. But I am sure that those who voted in favor of suspending Ankara’s accession talks - and that is a large majority of MEPs - did not take into account the thousands asking for justice. Those thousands in fact represent the millions of people in the country who long for a democratic Turkey. With the vote, the European Parliament ultimately strengthened the hands of those in Turkey who would rather have a break up with the EU so they can have a free ride on anti-democratic practices.

Some may argue that earlier support for Turkey–EU relations did not help consolidate democracy and prevent democratic backsliding. They are both right and wrong. We might now have a government that is prone to anti-democratic practices, but we also have opposition forces, political parties, and civil society representatives who are fighting against this backsliding. Turkey’s proximity to Europe and its engagement with the European Union has definitely helped consolidate the democratic opposition in the country, even though it has not been strong enough to halt the democratic backsliding so far. But that does not mean it will never be strong enough to reverse this trend at some point. 

No one in Turkey is so naïve as to think that Turkish democracy will be saved or mortally harmed by a non–binding decision of the European Parliament. MEPs may have succumbed to populism to please their constituency, but they should not fool us by saying they sided with democracy. Nobody currently behind bars in Turkey would agree.