How the EU bolsters president Erdoğan’s authoritarianism19 Mar 2019 - 16:33
Being in prison for 17 months without knowing what you are being accused of - it has become a reality in today’s Turkey. Osman Kavala, philanthropist and a leading figure in Turkish civil society, was arrested on 18 October 2017. He is only one of thousands who fell victim to president Erdoğan’s crackdown to silence dissenting and critical voices. On March 4 this year, the Istanbul Heavy Penal Court No. 30 accepted the charges against him and fifteen others, in which they are being accused of ‘seeking to overthrow the government and preventing the government from performing its duties’. If found guilty, Kavala and his fellow suspects face life imprisonment without parole.
The 657-page indictment ascribes responsibility to Kavala for the Gezi Park protests that took place in 2013. With over three and a half million protestors that took to the streets, these protests culminated in a spontaneous wave of anti-government demonstrations. President Erdoğan, however, was quick to reframe the uprising as the outcome of an international conspiracy to unseat his government. The evidence against Kavala? In intercepted calls, he was overheard offering to lend a plastic folding table to the protestors and agreed to send cookies, fruit juice and milk. The indictment lacks any evidence that Kavala or any of the other suspects directed the protests, let alone orchestrated an uprising to unseat Erdoğan.
One could have a laugh about this, if it wasn’t so serious. This is the level Turkey’s democracy has sunk to. Lives are being ruined, to ensure that certain people can remain in power without being held accountable.
For the past five years, the European Parliament has consistently urged EU leaders to increase political pressure on the Turkish government. Our red lines have all been crossed: severe human rights violations continue, the rule of law has been dismantled, and Turkey is the record holder of jailed journalists for the third consecutive year. Moreover, the constitutional changes of April 2017 consolidate Erdoğan’s authoritarianism and make him an all-powerful president. For these reasons, the European Parliament officially requested the Council last week to formally suspend EU accession talks with Turkey. Not that anyone was seriously considering accession under the current circumstances, but even maintaining the status quo would be a farce.
Our calls for the respect of fundamental rights have fallen on deaf ears in the capitals of the European Union
Yet, our calls for the respect of fundamental rights have fallen on deaf ears in the capitals of the European Union. So far, EU leaders failed to come up with a clear and consistent strategy on Turkey, let alone an idea on how to prevent further backsliding in the country. Turkey has disappeared from the public eye. It seems that our government leaders have accepted the situation as it is, and avoid any formal condemnation of the country’s blatant human rights violations. The Netherlands is no exception to this rule. When our Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok and his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu held a press conference in October last year to discuss the restored Turkish-Dutch diplomatic relations, Blok failed to even mention human rights concerns.
The European Parliament’s call is clear: we demand the EU to take action on the case of Osman Kavala. We demand the EU to take action on Selahattin Demirtas, the Kurdish leader of the opposition who spent the past 2.5 year in a high-security prison. We demand action for the tens of thousands of people still awaiting a fair trial, for the LGBTI activists whose events have all been banned, for the Saturday mothers whose right to protest was withdrawn after 25 years and for the brave Turkish women whose march on International Women’s Day was welcomed with rubber bullets and tear gas.
My annual report, which calls for the formal suspension of the accession talks between Turkey and the EU, was adopted with a large majority by the European Parliament on 13 March. Only two days later, the EU had a high-level meeting with Çavuşoğlu in Brussels. The most critical note came from Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn, who declared that “dialogue doesn’t mean uncritical dialogue and sometimes we had to state that we agree to disagree”.
His statement is exemplary for how the EU has so far been unable to hit the right note in its dialogue with the Turkish government. In doing so, the EU not only bolsters the president’s authoritarianism; it also continues to disappoint the country’s democratic forces who turn to Brussels for support.