“Three domestic political issues in Turkey are in the news at the moment: hunger strikes related to the Kurdish issue, press freedom, and the process of making a new Turkish constitution,” said Joost Lagendijk, a former Member of the European Parliament and a columnist at Today’s Zaman.
The hunger strikes of hundreds of Kurdish prisoners are reaching a critical juncture, said Lagendijk, explaining that they were starving themselves in order to campaign for the right to a Kurdish-language defence in court, for the right to receive an education in Kurdish, and to improve the detention conditions of Abdullah Öcalan.
“Generally hunger strikes are inhumane. Usually they are counter-productive. This one is for political goals. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) is willing to sacrifice hundreds of its foot soldiers for the cause,” Lagendijk said. “The government has indicated some willingness to move on the court issue. But it cannot be seen to give in to hunger strikes. They are the wrong way to try to achieve political aims,” the newspaper columnist argued. “The government has turned to old-style repression, military attacks and arrests, which didn’t work in the past and won’t work now. But it is also introducing new policies, like allowing the Kurdish language to be spoken in court and returning Kurdish village names,” Lagendijk said. The former MEP said the AK Party (AKP) was making “piecemeal concessions” while at the same time “increasing repression”. “It’s an ambivalent and complicated picture. The AK Party is stuck between old-style repression and new ways of acting. Its actions lack clarity and transparency,” he said.
“The second issue is press freedom and the imprisonment of journalists,” Lagendijk said. “This is a Kurdish issue. 70% of the journalists in prison are Kurds. They are not in prison for writing about [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan. They are in prison under anti-terror laws, for allegedly promoting the same goals as the outlawed PKK, for example education in the Kurdish language,” the former MEP said. He spoke of long two to three-year detention periods before cases came to court. “It’s a huge problem. People are being investigated for the wrong reasons, and they are still in prison,” he claimed. “The reform proposed by the AKP would deal with both issues [the anti-terror law and detention], but it is being blocked by the Office of the Prime Minister, who doesn’t want to be seen to give in to the PKK’s pressure and terror,” Lagendijk said. “I’m not very optimistic regarding the new constitution. It is supposed to be drawn up with the equal representation of all political parties, which is what the European Commission wants. But none of the parties are willing to compromise – compromise is seen as giving in,” the newspaper columnist claimed.
“I think the deadlock will be broken by a deal between the AKP and the nationalists, which would be bad for Turkey but good for Erdoğan, who thinks he can secure the presidency – which he wants to make stronger in the new constitution – with the nationalists’ backing,” Lagendijk said. “I think a better deal for Turkey would be an agreement between the AKP and the [opposition] CHP. But the CHP doesn’t know which way to turn either. It backs similar proposals to the AKP, but opposes the AKP in parliament,” he said, citing the Kurdish language issue as an example. “Sometimes the government takes a step forward, but then takes another step sideways or backwards. The situation in Turkey is very complex. There are positives, despite the many problems,” Lagendijk concluded.
“Turkey isn’t a dictatorship. Reforms are too slow and lack transparency, but at least they are moving,” he added.
“Turkey has become a more complicated place in recent years. Over the last decade, the AKP has been a very good director of Turkish foreign policy,” said Ian Lesser, Executive Director of the German Marshall Fund Transatlantic Center in Brussels, citing as examples the rebalancing of priorities between East and West and the ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy. “War between Turkey and Greece is off the table nowadays, when it avoiding it was once a part of US foreign policy,” Lesser said.
“The AKP is now much more comfortable dealing with the Middle East than its predecessors would have been. But there’s a lack of clarity over its priorities, despite the clear strategy,” he argued.
Moreover, he spoke of the “sense of activism but lack of priorities” that had characterised Turkey’s relations with the EU and NATO during the AKP’s time in office. “Attitudes to EU integration have declined over time, along with support for [US President Barack] Obama. Closer relations to the Eastern neighbours have grown too. So there’s been a change in attitudes. But Turkey’s neighbourhood has become a more chaotic place,” Lesser said.
“There’s no end in sight [to the violence] in Syria, and there are problems in other neighbouring countries too. This will have an isolating effect, perhaps similar to the 1990s when the Kurdish insurgency and counter-insurgency were at their height,” he predicted. “Can Turkey retain its commercial dynamism in these testing times? I’m not sure,” said Lesser, adding: “Is there an Iranian hand in the revival of PKK violence? This is clouding relations whether true or not.” “Will the US elections put Turkey under more pressure to flex its muscles over Iran’s nuclear ambitions?” he further wondered.
Turkey-US relations will see Washington return to viewing Turkey as a “traditional geostrategic partner” in that relations “won’t be very diverse,” Lesser predicted. “It’s all about security cooperation and security strategy regarding Syria and Iran,” he said.
“At the same time, Turkey is under international pressure from parliaments regarding press freedom, etc. Not much has changed in this regard,” Lesser concluded.
“The European struggle to understand what’s going on in Turkey has become more opaque and complex. We don’t understand the Gülen movement, or relations between the government and the military,” said UK MEP Andrew Duff, a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group in the European Parliament. “We can’t understand why people don’t admit to supporting the AK Party, when its overall support is over 50%. I don’t understand how a Turkish prime minister can talk for 2.5 hours without mentioning the EU once, like Erdoğan did during the party conference. I expected his conference speech to feature a more contemporary sense of reality,” Duff said.
“We can’t understand how Turkey has made such a mess of the Cyprus issue. The AKP’s third election victory offered the chance to trigger something really constructive and eventually to resolve the Cyprus problem, in turn triggering the respect of the EU and the US,” the MEP said.
“But Erdoğan did precisely the opposite. He was destructive rather than constructive, and he fomented a fear of Turkey among the Greek Cypriot community. The new president won’t be able to manage relations with ‘the North’ constructively,” Duff said. “The sterility of politics in the ‘TRNC’ (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) is not promising. I’m pessimistic. We know that without solving the Cyprus problem, there’s no prospect of Turkey joining the EU. Already, there’s no accession process. No new chapters are being opened. Dialogue has closed down, for example between parliaments,” he lamented.
“I doubt that the incoming Irish EU Presidency will be willing to invest much capital in the Cyprus issue,” the MEP added. “The EU’s aspiration to have a more autonomous foreign policy in line with that of the US cannot happen due to the intractable nature of the Cyprus dispute, which is a fantastical Eastern Balkan mess of nationalism, folklore, religion and everything else,” Duff deplored.
“The European Parliament will pass a report on the future of EU enlargement policy at its next Strasbourg session. A key paragraph speaks of the creation of a new class of ‘Associate Membership’ of the EU,” the MEP said. “This would be suitable for countries like Norway and Switzerland, which find relations with the EU very frustrating; with Serbia, which wants to join the EU one day but is a long way away from that today; and as a parking place and attractive alternative for countries with EU membership aspirations whose credibility is being tested by the SAA [Stabilisation and Association Agreement] process,” Duff said. “For Turkey, I think Associate Membership is the desirable permanent place for it to end up in. It would commit it to respecting Article 2 of the EU Treaties, but not Article 3 and all the pooling of sovereignty which that implies,” he argued.
“Now is the time to be explicit rather than implicit. We’re not being fair to Turkey or true to ourselves,” said Duff, urging participants to bear in mind the revolution that full EU membership would require in Turkey.
“I think the new federal core of the EU will be codified from 2015,” said Duff, arguing that Turkey was unlikely to become part of this new federal Europe and expressing regret that things had come to this point despite years of progress. “I regret that it’s come to this, but I think it would be better if Turkey were to ground its future development on economic growth and foreign policy,” he concluded.
“Turkey is always an exciting country of highs and lows. Today it’s going through a low in many areas, both in terms of domestic and foreign policy,” said Amanda Paul, a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre.
Asked whether it would be possible to appropriately define the ‘Associate Membership’ proposed by Andrew Duff, Today’s Zaman columnist Joost Lagendijk said “as a means of keeping the accession process going, there’s been a shift towards promoting Turkey’s benefits to the EU in terms of geostrategic importance.
The European Commission is probably getting a bit tired of making the same arguments”. “But I think it’s too early to move towards Associate Membership [instead]. [French President François] Hollande is yet to visit Turkey. Maybe that will help to unblock the negotiations,” Lagendijk said. “It would make a big difference if Turkish ‘Associate Membership’ weren’t something isolated, and if it were also joined by the UK. Otherwise Ankara would be worried about pooling sovereignty in such isolation,” he said.
“We may be returning to talking about security aspects and a convergence of foreign policy, rather than full EU membership. That’s what the US has always been more interested in anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised if Turkey ended up in some sort of privileged partnership, but in a big club,” said Ian Lesser of the German Marshall Fund.
Asked whether Georgia, the UK and those 2004 enlargement countries that are still reluctant to take on every aspect of EU membership could also be interested in Associate Membership, UK ALDE MEP Andrew Duff said “we’re determined not to repeat the mistakes of previous enlargements. Croatia has found [the accession process] much harder than Bulgaria and Romania did”.
“The threshold is going up as the EU debates a more federal Europe. There’s a stronger sense of EU common interest than ever before. We’re now defining the true foreign policy and wider political interests of the EU, rather than simply being nice to our neighbours,” Duff said.
“At first, the privileged partnership seemed to me to be a patronizing concept for Christian Democrats pining after the Charlemagne era. But I’m proposing something more credible and democratically-acceptable to all parties,” he argued.
Duff warned Turkish leaders against taking advice from the UK government, “because its aim is to enlarge the EU so much that it’ll collapse”. “That’s not what I want. We need a more federal Europe to secure the euro. And if there’s no safety valve in which to park the Brits, then they will veto a federal budget,” he cautioned.
“Washington doesn’t have the leverage to influence decisions like this. But there would be no point in Turkey agreeing to such a change in direction if it were to mean that the political reforms that it so desperately needs would not be continued. Therefore, full respect of Article 2 must be a central pillar of any new form of association,” Duff said.
Asked whether the Turks would one day give up on EU membership, former MEP Lagendijk said “a lot of Turks are already saying that. It’s a very popular way of thinking. People say ‘we have huge economic growth without it anyway’. That was until the idea of Associate Membership came around”.
“There are good reasons why the business community doesn’t speak out in public, because Turkish economic convergence with Europe is essential. But if this lack of progress continues, then even businesspeople might begin to consider other forms of relations. There is a balance to be struck between the rational (‘we must stay in the accession process’) and the emotional (‘if they don’t want us anyway, then let’s get out’),” Lagendijk said.
“Turkey is searching for its place in the world. Geo-strategically there’s no real alternative to the West. It’s not going to be the Middle East, Iran or Russia. In opinion polls, Europeans don’t like the idea of Turkish EU membership, but they nevertheless think it’ll happen one day. In Turkey, it’s the opposite way around,” said the German Marshall Fund’s Lesser.
“Someday there’ll have to be a breaking point, because the cynicism is corrosive,” Lesser warned.
Asked whether European talk of the EU’s importance to Turkey was not over-optimistic given the enormity of Ankara’s domestic agenda, journalist Lagendijk said “EU relations do matter, but you can’t sell a ‘Positive Agenda’ to Turks without making progress on visas, which is such an emotional issue and would constitute a tangible result”.
“The ‘Positive Agenda’ and geostrategic security cooperation are very abstract concepts, but visas are something tangible. You can’t stick to the present visa regime, so I think the European courts will eventually force governments to act,” the former MEP predicted.
Lesser said “unless this inward-looking moment in Turkey (the PKK issue, etc.) is controlled, it will have a very isolating effect in terms of Ankara’s EU relations, investment and even tourism. Startling numbers of people are dying”.
MEP Duff said “all parties talk about the visa issue without always understanding that there are two sides to this coin – [the other is] the readmission agreement. But let’s not forget that one of the fundamental rights of this world is the right to leave your own country, and Turks don’t have that at the moment”.
Asked to describe the state of play regarding visa-free travel and the readmission agreement, Lagendijk said “the basic problem is explaining to Turks why they’re not in the same boat as the Balkan countries, Serbia or Croatia. And why aren’t they being treated in the same way as others like Russia, Brazil and Mexico, which aren’t even in the EU?”
“I understand the Brussels debate, but look at it from the point of view of public perceptions in Turkey,” Lagendijk added.
Asked about the situation in Syria, Lesser said “the USA understands that it’s not possible to have a policy towards Syria or Iran without Turkey on board. What certainly won’t work regarding Syria is a series of unilateral moves by Turkey, the US or European countries”.
“If this rages on for a decade, then the 100,000 Syrians crossing the border to Turkey could become 6-700,000. Imagine the pressure that would put Greece under,” he said.