Dark clouds gathering on European front

Dark clouds gathering on European front

Yet another clash has erupted between the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and Europe, this time regarding the Venice Commission’s highly critical report on the constitutional amendments to be voted on in the April 16 referendum. 

The Venice Commission, which consists of constitutional experts and advises the Council of Europe, has defined the proposed constitutional amendments as “representing a dangerous step backwards in the constitutional democratic tradition of Turkey.” The Justice Ministry’s reaction to the report was pretty harsh. 

At the beginning of the week, the Justice Ministry issued a statement saying that the report was not objective, but was biased and deliberate and that the text prepared by the commission “almost matched with the one devised by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) claims.”  

Truly, we are face to face with a report full of very strong criticisms. 

In its detailed 30-page report, the commission emphasizes the argument that the constitutional amendments adopted by the parliament seriously weaken the separation of powers and checks and balances in Turkey. 

The commission has also issued two other reports, one on the duties, purviews and functioning of the criminal courts of peace and the other on the measures detailed in the recent emergency decree laws with respect to the freedom of the media. 

Well, what do all these reports mean? 

We will hear the Venice Commission, whose complete name is the “European Commission for Democracy through Law,” more often in the coming weeks, months and maybe years. This commission is regarded today as the most respected independent institution in Europe in the fields of democracy and law. 

It prepares independent opinions for the Council of Europe and its member countries on desired topics. A total of 61 countries are members of the commission, including non-European countries such as the United States, Canada and certain Latin American countries. Countries are represented by university professors and supreme and constitutional court judges. 

Turkey was represented by Professor Ergun Özbudun until 2014; Professor Osman Can was assigned by the Turkish government in 2014 for four years. 

A working group of four or five representatives prepares a draft opinion which is discussed and adopted by the Venice Commission. After adoption, the opinion becomes public and is forwarded to the requesting body. Even though they are not binding, these reports have an enormous effect as references. 

Within this context, Europe and the West in general will likely evaluate the constitutional changes in Turkey through this report.  

Let us not forget that the Venice Commission is an institution that did not spare its support for the AK Party until recent years. For instance, memories remain fresh of how the commission issued an opinion passionately supporting the changes in the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) law. 

Nobody would have ever thought in 2010 that the same commission would be the target of AK Party criticisms today.  

At the end of April, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly will vote on all three reports of the commission.  

If the reports are accepted, then Turkey might again be subjected to the monitoring system of the Council of Europe after only becoming free of it in 2004.

Turkey was subjected to the mechanism in 1996 because of non-democratic practices but was removed from the list in 2004 thanks to the political reforms launched by the AK Party government.

The danger on the horizon is that exactly 13 years on, Turkey is set to again become a country whose democracy is monitored once more.  

The countries that the Council of Europe currently monitors are Albania, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, Serbia and Ukraine. 

It would not be wrong to say a development on this front would seriously hurt Turkey’s EU accession process.