Concerned about Turkey, MEPs debate speeding up EU talks

Hannes Swoboda MEP large.jpg

Members of  the European Parliament expressed grave concern yesterday (12 June) about the Turkish government’s response to the Gezi Park protests that have polarised the country over the last three weeks. There was less consensus on whether speeding up EU accession negotiations could help the democratisation process in Turkey, however, EURACTIV Turkey reports.

Turkish deputy Prime Minister Bülent Ar?nç said on Monday he expected the largest anti-government protests the country has seen in decades to end soon, and suggested radical action might be taken to dispel the protestors.

“All the necessary actions against the lawlessness and illegal activities will be finalised by the weekend,” Ar?nç said.

But the strong resistance shown by protestors on Tuesday (11 June), when police entered Taksim Square for the first time in over a week, signals that the protests may continue longer than the government might expect (see background).

The central area of Istanbul has turned into a heavily barricaded carnival zone. Government plans to redevelop Gezi Park provoked what appeared first as a peaceful local sit-in protest, which has now evolved into a country-wide anti-government protest.

When riot police entered the square on early Tuesday (11 June) again, skirmishes turned into full blown clashes when the police abruptly went on to clear the square of all civilians in the evening, resulting in a degree of violence not seen for days.

Dozens of lawyers were also briefly detained after they protested at the Istanbul Palace of Justice, prompting thousands of their colleagues in Istanbul and Ankara to march in protest on Wednesday.

“There was intensive use of water cannon and tear gas. There were violent scenes in Ankara and Izmir too. Reports of widespread injuries once again underlined these police tactics are a major cause of concern,” said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton about the police offensive at a European Parliament debate on Wednesday (12 June).

“What started peacefully, now turned into violence,” said the Parliament’s rapporteur on Turkey, Dutch MEP Ria Oomen-Ruijten (European People’s Party), criticising the government’s handling of the situation.

“If Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdo?an would have been more sensitive, If the language would have been more sensitive, and also the style of governing for those who didn’t vote for him would have been more sensitive, than it wouldn’t have happened,” she said.

‘Not a psychological debate’

The Turkish prime minister faced criticism for taking sensitive political decisions without prior consultation and for his choice to fight back against the protests instead of searching for a peaceful compromise to prevent the crisis from escalating.

As a result, parts of the debate in Parliament focused on Erdo?an himself.

Greek MEP Niki Tzavela (Europe of Freedom and Democracy group) argued that because it was very difficult for Erdo?an to back down, the EU should put its confidence in President Abdullah Gül. “Despite putting his signature on the alcohol ban legislation, he is the only politician that has shown willingness for compromise and reconciliation,” she said.

Gül is a decades-old ally of Erdo?an and briefly served as a caretaker prime minister after the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) victory in the elections of late 2002 until early 2003 when Erdo?an’s ban from politics was lifted. Last Monday, President Gül approved a controversial law restricting alcohol sales in Turkey, which was amongst the hasty government decisions which fuelled the protests.

Describing the Turkish prime minister’s determination in the crisis as a “dangerous threat”, Hannes Swoboda MEP, the parliamentary leader of the Socialists & Democrats group, said: “Yes, we want Turkey [in the EU] but this Turkey as represented today by Mr. Erdo?an cannot have a place in Europe. Mr. Erdo?an would have to change [himself], to change Turkey.”

Alexander Lambsdorff MEP, from the liberal ALDE group, disagreed. “We are not undergoing a psychological debate here. The question is not a man changing or not,” he said, adding that there must be a change of political culture in Turkey, to enable minorities to make their voice heard in politics. The country is not a “dictatorship of the majority”, he said.

Speeding up the accession process?

Some MEPs argued that opening the 23rd and 24th chapters on membership talks – which cover the issues of judiciary and fundamental rights, justice, freedom and security – would help the democratisation process in Turkey.

Turkey has repeatedly rejected EU criticism on issues such as freedom of expression by pointing out that the relevant chapters are not open for talks. In principle, the two chapters are the first to be opened in accession negotiations, but in Turkey’s case they are effectively blocked by Cyprus. As EURACTIV reported in February, Ankara has expressed frustration with not being provided the required benchmarks for these chapters in years.

Swoboda argued in favor of opening the chapters, saying they would test the Turkish government’s willingness to make progress in those areas.

Dutch MEP Emine Bozkurt, also an S&D member, agreed with Swoboda saying that although the “positive agenda” covered these issues, the recent developments in Turkey were “not so positive”.

The European Commission and Turkey launched a so-called “positive agenda” last year in order to continue with technical work on chapters which cannot be opened due to lack of consensus among the 27 EU member states.

Elmar Brok (European People’s Party), a German MEP who is also chairman of the Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, suggested that instead of opening new chapters, the EU should deal with Turkey in other ways, for example in a “Norway style” relationship.

Negotiating for EU membership since 2005, Turkey has not opened a single chapter over the past three years. Talks on the chapter covering regional policy were expected to launch later this month, but complications due to recent developments may add to Ankara’s disillusionment with the process.

Speaking in the European Parliament, EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle also expressed disappointment with the blockages on the EU side.

“How come the minister of justice of Turkey is repeatedly asking me again and again ‘Where are the screening reports in this field I can use for the reforms?’ How come he’s asking me where are the benchmarks for opening and closing the chapters 23 and 24,” Füle said, calling for lifting of the deadlock.

Erdo?an meets activists

Last week, Füle visited Istanbul and attended a conference on EU affairs alongside Erdo?an, after meeting with the protesters in Gezi Park. He told the Parliament on Wednesday that the mostly young people he met there were not the “looters” that Erdo?an had referred to earlier.

On Wednesday evening, Erdo?an also met with a group of activists to discuss the issue of Gezi Park and the government suggested it could organise a referendum on the issue. But the protest’s leaders dismissed the meeting, questioning the legitimacy of the people representing the movement.

The European Parliament resolution on the protests, to be put to vote on Thursday, will most likely not be welcomed by Erdo?an.

British MEP Richard Howitt (S&D) addressed Erdo?an directly during his speech, saying: “Please don’t dismiss our criticisms as some form of international conspiracy against you.”

The Turkish prime minister has been inclined to lay the blame on external powers during the past few weeks.

ALDE Leader, Guy Verhofstadt said he was disappointed that the Union has again chosen to be ambivalent in the face of a clear violation of fundamental rights by an EU candidate state, adding that Turkey must not turn its back on European principles and values.

"What is happening in Turkey, is a constant abuse by an excessive state.  The tyranny of a majority as John Stuart Mill called it.  A system in which decisions taken by a majority are more important then the rights of minorities or individuals.  Take the media as an example, Turkey is today the biggest prison for journalists in the world according to Reporters without Borders. It is ranked 154  - just three places above the last dictatorship in Europe - Belarus."

He continued "Let me be clear.  I am not questioning the democratic mandate of the elected  government in Turkey. What I am questioning is the emerging phenomena of what I call a democratura. My Group is a strong supporter of a European choice for Turkey. But let me be clear, not a Turkey that turns its back on European principles and values."

Leftist MEPs expressed their “total solidarity” to the 'inspirational' Taksim square protestors

"Democracy means listening carefully to the people who may not agree with us. It is more than obvious that the Turkish government has no idea of what respect for different opinions means", GUE/NGL's MEP Takis Hadjigeorgiou (Cyprus) said during the debate.

"We fully support the demonstrators and we call upon the Turkish government and the police forces to refrain from any further acts of violence and suppression. There can be no democracy in Turkey without giving the Turks and Kurds their fundamental freedoms. There can be no democracy in Turkey without restoring the fundamental rights of the Cypriots, both Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots alike."

Irish GUE/NGL MEP Paul Murphy told Ashton that he was "appalled” by her press statement released on Sunday night in which she calls 'for the need for restraint on all sides'. “In Istanbul I personally witnessed massive and systematic violence - including considerable use of teargas and water cannons - by Turkish police against protestors. Your statement came just 24 hours before the police moved with brutal force into Taksim Square turning it into a war zone. The protestors I met in Istanbul were an absolute inspiration; they are only guilty of demanding their rights and freedoms."

"On June 7 and 8, I was in Taksim square and the toll of the state violence that I saw was terrible", said Giorgios Toussas (GUE/NGL, Greece). The Turkish government has attacked ordinary people and political parties. The police violence and the repression of demonstrators must stop and the people responsible for the violence need to be brought to book."

A sit-in against plans to demolish the Gezi Park in Istanbul and replace it by the replica of historical barracks that existed there until the 1940’s sparked the fiercest anti-government protests in recent years over the weekend of 1 and 2 June in Turkey.

The EU expressed concern about the use of force by the police as the protest spread to more cities.

The protests initially began as a peaceful occupy-style movement in reaction to plans to demolish a park as part of a wider re-arrangement of the central Taksim Square in Istanbul, but evolved into a general expression of discontent with the government.

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