Press freedom concerns made clear to Ankara: EU envoy

Press freedom concerns made clear to Ankara: EU envoy

Press freedom concerns made clear to Ankara: EU envoy


This fall the attention of the EU was focused on the refugee issue, while at the same time shortcomings in human rights and media freedom (mentioned in the EU Progress Report on Turkey) in Turkey were also mentioned by all EU leaders to their Turkish interlocutors at a recent EU-Turkey Summit in Brussels, said Ambassador Hansjörg Haber, the head of the Delegation of the European Commission to Turkey, while speaking to daily Hürriyet in a recent interview in Ankara. 

Europe focused on refugee issue

In this recent process that we have been going through, there was a perception in Turkey and also in Europe that democratic values, human rights and press freedom in Turkey were being taken hostage by the refugee crisis in Europe. What is your opinion on this? 

I think this fall the attention was focused on the refugee and irregular migration issue and if you look at the way this has affected Europe in general and some of our Member States in particular, I think it is understandable. At the same time the progress report mentions what we perceive as shortcomings, e.g. in the human rights and media freedom field, and these topics were also mentioned by all interlocutors to our Turkish friends at the summit in Brussels. 

You mentioned the progress report but there was also wide criticism on the timing of the progress report. It wasn’t published on the date it was thought it would be published, as it was postponed until after the general elections in Turkey.

There was already a detailed discussion on this when we eventually published the progress report in early November and I think we tried to answer this criticism to the best of our capability. It was simply that, again, the refugee and migration crisis dominated the media so much and that the topic of the accession of Turkey deserved particular attention. Therefore, the decision was to separate the discussion on these two issues by delaying the publication of the progress report. I think basically we have obtained what we wanted; both of these topics were discussed in depth and very thoroughly. 

Dündar’s letter was considered by EU leaders

Two prominent Turkish journalists, Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, were imprisoned last week and they sent a letter to the EU from their cell in prison. In their letter, they said, “We would also like to hope that your desire to end the refugee crisis will not stand in the way of your sensitivity towards human rights and freedom of press and expression as fundamental values of the Western world.” However, it looks like this letter was not considered very much by the EU.

I think it was. There have been very clear statements by EU leaders (EU Commission head Jean Claude Juncker, European Parliament President Martin Schulz and European Union Council President Donald Tusk) at the last EU-Turkey Summit regarding the importance of freedom of press in the context of our overall cooperation and dialogue. I visited the Ankara bureau of (daily) Cumhuriyet yesterday to get some more information on what was happening, to listen to the concerns of the journalists and of course this is a concern to us which we also articulate vis-à-vis our Turkish friends. At the same time, I think the expectations cannot be that media freedom is realized in Turkey from the outside. There needs to be a consensus in the population on the importance of having a vibrant and diverse media landscape and solidarity among journalists uniting around this principle, because media freedom cannot be realized from outside Turkey. It has to be part of the development of Turkish society. 

Turkey must fulfill 72 requirements for visa liberalization

During the EU- Turkey Summit which took place Nov. 29, the EU and Turkey agreed on an action plan which involved accelerating the EU accession process, visa liberalization and paying 3 billion euros to Turkey in return for implementing the readmission agreement. What will be the most important stages in front of the EU and Turkey in the following months?

Many Turks will see the visa liberalization process as one of the most important points on the agenda; for most of our Member States the implementation of the readmission agreement, which is part of the visa liberalization roadmap, is crucial. We have worked to compress the original timelines, so that Member States and the European Parliament can decide on visa liberalization by autumn 2016. But this presupposes very intense work on both sides, with lots of legislative action to be taken on the Turkish side. For example, Turkey will have to introduce biometric passports for those who then will be allowed to travel visa-free; coordination of border management needs to be improved. All the 72 requirements of the original visa liberalization roadmap need to be fulfilled. This is tough, but doable. Another important step is the implementation of the EU-Turkey joint migration action plan, which also contains the EU’s commitment to mobilize new funds, such as the initial 3 billion euros decided at the last EU-Turkey Summit. The philosophy on which we agree with Turkey is to transform irregular migration with all these horrible pictures that we see from the Mediterranean into regular migration for people to have the chance of a regular process to be resettled in Europe. This would allow pulling the rug from under human trafficking and putting an end to people drowning in the Aegean Sea. 

So is October 2016 the date Turkish citizens can start traveling to Europe visa-free? 

We need two more reports on the implementation of the road map. One will be submitted in early spring next year and the other in September, October also next year. And on the basis of these, the council and the European Parliament will be asked to decide (whether) to amend the relevant EU legislation which requires Turkish citizens to obtain a visa before traveling to Europe. So the autumn of 2016 is the earliest date at which the visa requirement can be lifted, provided all 72 requirements of the roadmap have been implemented.   

After the EU-Turkey Summit some European leaders such as Dutch prime minister said Turkey’s membership to the EU will not happen soon. What do you think about this?

The important thing is that the accession process is re-energized by starting discussions on chapters on rule of law and fundamental rights, education and culture, or energy, or other chapters such as public procurement, competition or social policy. Such discussions will allow exchanges on real and concrete reforms and they will take time. But if they do not restart, they will never finish. 

You served in the German Embassy in Ankara back in the 1990s. What kind of differences do you see between now and then in Turkey?

It is much more advanced of course, much better organized, much more dynamic. One thing which is a painful memory is that at that time one practically could not travel to the southeast because of the security situation there. I hope during my tenure, conditions will be such that I can go there again. 

The Kurdish peace process was one of the issues mentioned in the Progress Report. There is no peace process anymore, as clashes between (Turkish) security forces and (the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party) PKK have accelerated a lot in recent months, and most recently, the head of the Diyarbakır Bar Association, Tahir Elçi, was killed in a clash in (southeastern) Diyarbakır. How important is it for Turkey to go back to the Kurdish peace process in the accession process to the EU? 

It is important that all political leaders redouble efforts to carry on the peace process. Important progress has been made over the past two years; this should not be thrown away. All parties should resume the process and return to a lasting ceasefire without delay. The Kurdish peace process remains the best opportunity in a generation to solve a conflict that has claimed far too many lives. It should be pursued in good faith on all sides. The EU remains committed to supporting this process. The integrity of the investigation (into Elçi’s killing) must be beyond doubt; there is no question about this. We will follow this very attentively. In the meantime, it is important that we do not pre-empt the investigation and keep an open mind about its outcome.