What happens to Turkey-EU ties if the death penalty returns?

What happens to Turkey-EU ties if the death penalty returns?

Reiterating his position on bringing back the death penalty to Turkey, President Tayyip Erdoğan said on Feb. 24 that “I said I would approve the death penalty if it is approved by the parliament … If it is not approved by the parliament, God willing, we will go to the nation for a referendum on that, too.”

The debate heated up when Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who supports the shift to an executive presidential system to be voted on in a April 16 referendum, called on the government to bring the issue to the parliament immediately, pledging support for it.

The next day on Feb. 23, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said the government was not considering taking to parliament before the referendum; Erdoğan’s remarks followed that.

It was actually the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government which removed the death penalty from the Turkish Penal Code in 2004 under the leadership of then Prime Minister Erdoğan. The debate to lift the death penalty had started immediately after the 1999 arrest and death sentence to Abdullah Öcalan, the founding leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). At the time, Bahçeli was the partner of a tri-party coalition and despite objecting to the idea, continued with the coalition as there was support from other parties in the parliament for the suspension of the implementation.

The reason for that was not to cut ties with European institutions, such as the Council of Europe (CoE), European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the European Union, in whom Turkey had applied to become a member. As a result, Turkey’s candidacy was approved in the EU summit in December of the same year.
In 2004, the death penalty was completely removed from the system with a constitutional amendment in parliament and in the framework of EU harmonization efforts. It was a factor in the EU’s opening of the membership negotiations.

The death penalty is not only shunned in the Copenhagen political criteria for being a member or candidate in the EU, but also has no place in the Venice Commission decisions of the CoE and the rulings of the ECHR which is considered the de facto European constitution.

It wasn’t a popular subject until the night of July 15, 2016, when a group of soldiers attempted a coup. The coup attempt, believed to have been masterminded by Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamist preacher living in the U.S., was foiled with the resistance of the people, the government, all parties in parliament and a majority of the armed forces. When a group of supporters among the masses who rushed to Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport to greet President Erdoğan asked for the death penalty for the plotters, Erdoğan said he would approve it if the parliament passed a law.

Garo Paylan, a member of the parliament for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which focuses on the Kurdish issue, claimed in an interview to the news site T24 on Feb. 25 that Erdoğan and the government wanted to get rid of the limitations of the European system by reinstating the death penalty so that it could be excluded from it. He also claims the reason would be the possible thousands of applications to the ECHR in the near future which could result in “billions” of fines against the Turkish government. 

Perhaps the justification for the claim is not a very strong one, since the government implemented additional legal mechanisms to apply against the arrests and dismissals from jobs under the state of emergency imposed after the 2016 coup attempt, partly in an effort to reduce the number of files going to the Euro court. 

Also, it is counterproductive when you ask the U.S. and EU countries to give back the members of Gülen’s network who are now subject to arrest warrants in Turkey.

On the other hand, the pledges to reinstate the death penalty contradicts the AK Parti government’s target of further developing ties with the EU, which is still in force as far as we can understand from recent statements.

PM Yıldırım reiterated Turkey’s position recently during a visit to Malta on Feb. 17 by saying, “We hope to begin the work on the [existing] Customs Union Agreement, which foresees the development of relations with the EU and the opening of new [negotiation] chapters.” On Feb. 20 Turkish EU Affairs Minister Ömer Çelik asked for a summit with the EU on the immigration agreement with the EU and visa flexibilities for Turkish citizens. On Feb. 23, Yıldırım said the new executive presidency system would bring a more transparent and democratic system, not one-man rule as the naysayers claim.

Is it possible to bring back the death penalty and at the same time advance democracy and keep developing with the EU? I don’t think so.

Is it possible for Turkey to continue relations with the EU as a country which has reinstated the death penalty? Quite possible, but not as a country in the CoE-EHCR-EU system, since the EU has many relations with many countries in the Middle East and Asia with the death penalty in their legislation.

But that would not be the same world for Turkey and the Turkish people.

That would be a pity for Turkey and the Turkish people, and that would be a pity for the EU countries which maintain a self-destructive, alienating stance toward Turkey that lacks a strategic dimension that might only be realized too late if Turkey abandons the system. 

I want to hope that this “hang them high” rhetoric is to keep angry nationalist votes in the “yes” camp until the April 16 referendum.