Turkey should prioritize democratic agenda during Romania’s EU presidency

Turkey should prioritize democratic agenda during Romania’s EU presidency

2019 will be an important year for the European Union which will have to deal with Brexit, European Parliament elections in May, a trade row with the United States, and the next long-term EU budget amid other complicated social and economic problems within the bloc and foreign policy issues beyond its borders.

The first half of 2019 will observe Romania’s term presidency and the next half Finland’s. Although the role of the term presidents in shaping EU policies has seriously diminished in the last decade, they still can have an influence over key issues.

Despite existing problems with the EU over democracy deficit, Turkey hopes that Romania’s term presidency would inject a new spirit in ties with the EU, particularly on its three main demands from Brussels, on visa liberalization, customs union, and the revitalization of the full membership process.

In an interview with private broadcaster NTV on Jan. 10, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu expressed optimism on Turkey-EU ties during the Romanian term presidency, although fairly underlining that he doesn’t expect Bucharest being able to change the entire picture alone. But, he said, any term president other than Austria’s would be better for Turkey’s EU agenda.

Çavuşoğlu said he was invited to an informal foreign ministers’ meeting, dubbed Gymnich, late this month by Bucharest, while also informing about the upcoming dialogue meetings with relevant EU bodies on energy, economy, and transportation.

The minister seemed to be realistic in not raising the bar too high on Turkey-EU ties as he recalled both sides will have elections in the first half of this year. But still, a Turkey-EU summit in which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would meet the highest level EU officials, Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, in June under the Romanian presidency is among Ankara’s short-term expectations.

Having communication channels open and continued engagement on issues like migration and counter-terrorism mark a positive process on Ankara-Brussels ties, but they should surely be accompanied with a chain of democratic reforms for a comprehensive recovery of Turkey’s ailing state of human rights and democracy.

As a matter of fact, the Turkish government held two key meetings in August and December 2018 and promised to take a number of concrete steps on said issues. It also announced that it will introduce a judicial reform strategy document in a bid to address all problems stemming from the malfunction of the justice system.

However, at this point, one can hardly argue that the mentality has changed in Turkey among government officials when it comes to responding to problems stemming from a lack of democratic norms and human rights breaches.

There are still scores of people being prosecuted on charges of insulting the president or other senior government officials through the media or social media. There are serious restrictions on the use of freedom of expression for the journalists, academics, artists and civil society representatives who risk being prosecuted for publicizing their genuine thoughts about the government.

A very fresh example of how freedom of expression is seen by senior government figures was given by Parliament Speaker Binali Yıldırım, ironically, at a meeting he hosted for journalists on the occasion of the Working Journalists’ Day on Jan. 10.

He defended a court’s verdict of the 13-month imprisonment to journalist Pelin Ünker for reporting about his son’s offshore maritime companies in Malta as part of the global Paradise Papers leak.

“There is no journalistic activity in those articles, but defamation,” Yıldırım said, feeling the liberty to define what a journalistic activity is and is not.

Ünker is the first and only journalist convicted for publishing the Paradise Papers, which revealed offshore interests and activities of more than 120 politicians and world leaders, including Queen Elizabeth II, 13 advisers, major donors and members of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

Turkey has to speedily reverse this mentality and embrace a fully libertarian approach on democracy and fundamental freedoms in line with its ambition to become one of the top 10 economies and democracies in the world. Its current state of democracy will unlikely deliver these ambitions.