Fight in Turkey’s parliament could put EU deal in jeopardy

Fight in Turkey’s parliament could put EU deal in jeopardy

A few hours after Turkey’s European Union Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkır said the government could fulfil all necessary benchmarks by May 2 for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens within the EU, the parliament in Ankara had to take a two-day recess due to escalating tension among deputies.

The tension had turned into a fist fight on the evening of April 27 when ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) deputies began shouting as an MP of the Kurdish-problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) was delivering a speech, strongly criticizing the security forces’ treatment of people. Outnumbered by AK Parti deputies, the HDP deputies were forced to leave the floor and three MPs were injured in the violence.

The next day, on April 28, tension in a parliamentary commission discussing the lifting of immunities of MPs - whose files have been on hold to be sent to courts - also turned into a fist fight, after which the Parliament Speaker’s Office announced a two-day recess. Fist fights are not uncommon in the Turkish parliament, but announcing an official recess because of a fight is certainly something rare.

When the fist fight broke out, the General Assembly was debating a draft bill to establish a supervisory commission to oversee law enforcement officers’ compliance with the law. The bill is part of benchmarks that must be completed before May 4 for the European Commission to suggest to the European Council that Turkey could be taken off the list of countries with visa requirements. Bozkır said he thought the bill would be debated and approved by parliament by Monday, May 2.

A strange side of the story is that the HDP is a party that does not want the EU to credit Ankara with the prestigious visa deal at a time when clashes are continuing between security forces and outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants in Turkey’s southeast, near the borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran, causing great loss of lives and reports of rights violations. The question is: Why did the AK Parti, which was expected to be patient to approve the bill, get drawn into a row leading to the two-day recess of parliament before a key deadline?

Prospective visa-free travel for Turkish citizens is part of a deal between Turkey and the EU over establishing control over the illegal influx of migrants as triggered by the Syrian civil war and the re-activation of Turkey’s integration process with the EU.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu hopes that if the benchmarks are completed, the European Commission will make the suggestion and the European Council will start the necessary procedure in its June meeting.

Davutoğlu thus wants to deliver an important promise to the Turkish people, despite criticism by President Tayyip Erdoğan, who has said he did not see any success in securing visa-free travel four months earlier than October, when he says it would have happened automatically as a part of the re-admission agreement.

Both Erdoğan and Davutoğlu have said that if the EU does not keep its promises, Turkey could step back from the readmission agreement. That could mean more refugees once again flowing into the EU, straining Turkey-EU relations once again.

In the meantime, adverse news has begun coming in from Brussels. At first, Frans Timmermans, the number two official of the European Commission and somebody who personally worked for the deal with Turkey, said the gap between Ankara and Brussels was “widening” - especially on rights and particularly on freedom of the press. Then, the Politico website reported from Brussels that countries including France and Germany have been working on a “hand-brake” mechanism in order to stop visa liberalization plans at any time they want.

Clearly this is a painful process both for Turkey and the EU. But if the optimism of Bozkır holds out, it could still be to the strategic benefit of both.