EU should grasp opportunity to demand democratic reform in Turkey at summit, Piri says

The European Union should demand improvements in Turkey’s democracy as a condition of meeting a Turkish request to further trade ties, said Kati Piri, a former European Parliament rapporteur on Turkey and a member of the Dutch parliament.

The European Union’s leaders are due to evaluate relations with Turkey at a summit on June 24-25 in Brussels. European leaders will decide on how they might further a “positive agenda” with Turkey agreed at a summit in March. Turkey is requesting an update to its Customs Union with the bloc and more financing for a refugee agreement.

“Offering better trade conditions to Turkey without any conditions on democratic reforms would be a real waste of the strongest card the EU has,” Piri said in an article published by the European Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday. A full version of the text is published below:

After being held at arm’s length for several years, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is to meet with Western leaders once again. Last week he saw U.S. president Joe Biden, as well as several NATO and EU leaders. Next week, the European Council will decide whether to deliver on the European Union’s past promise of a “positive agenda” with Turkey – and maybe even upgrade trade relations between the two.

Early last year, Erdoğan began openly encouraging hundreds of thousands of migrants to cross the border into Greece, where people got stuck in no man’s land at the border. Last summer, a military confrontation between Turkey and EU member states appeared to become a serious threat, caused by disputes over Turkey’s exploratory gas drillings in waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus. Meanwhile, Turkey’s supposed EU accession process has made no difference to its growing abuse of democracy and fundamental rights.

For years now, since the ‘refugee deal’ in 2016, the EU has held fast to a transactional Turkey policy, living in fear of the impact of renewed migrant arrivals and, more broadly, uncertain as to how to slow the democratic backsliding in its large neighbour. There was no political will in Europe to use the instruments at its disposal to try to halt Erdoğan’s autocratic trend. In so doing, it side-stepped the values-based membership process.

Last summer’s crises caused Brussels to rethink its policy. But, instead of focusing on Turkey’s democratic record, the EU is playing the economic card in order to keep Erdoğan cool: later this month, EU leaders will gather at a summit with Turkey, bringing with them proposals to modernise and upgrade the two sides’ longstanding customs union by adding to it services, right of establishment, public procurement, and agriculture. This would be a major deal for Ankara, as the EU is Turkey’s key trade partner and Erdoğan is currently grappling with an economic downturn. In return, Brussels is seeking a new deal on migration and calm in the eastern Mediterranean. European Council president Charles Michel has repeated the language of a “positive agenda” in his hopes for the talks. What EU leaders want is a Turkish foreign policy that is not diametrically opposed to Europe’s interests.

But such talk jars, given that human rights are absent from the proposed dialogue. The EU is looking to forge this new agreement all while Erdoğan: continues to jail his political opponents; threatens to close down the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP); arrests student protesters; withdraws from the Istanbul Convention; and ignores verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights on such high-profile cases as the imprisonment of civil society leader Osman Kavala and imprisonment of Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş. What a timing for a ‘positive’ agenda!

EU leaders are assuming that there is no alternative to Erdoğan. But they are ignoring the political reality of Turkey today. The president no longer has the support of most of the population – the ‘other Turkey’ made up of the people who defend what the EU proclaims as its basic values.

Indeed, Erdoğan’s political standing is weaker than first appears. The largest Turkish cities are now all governed by opposition parties. His falling domestic support – for the first time since taking power, his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) no longer has a majority in the Turkish parliament – means not only that the president no longer carries all before him, but that there is a constituency in Turkey that will draw strength from external voices in support of their cause. Economically, Turkey is highly dependent on the European market and foreign investors. And, regionally, Erdoğan’s relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin have soured and continue to fester because of Syria. There is also a limit on how far he can go in provoking NATO partners in the eastern Mediterranean. And, last but not least, Erdoğan is faced with the reality that there is a new president in the White House, one who cares about protecting democratic norms. So assuming that the EU is the weaker partner is wrong.

The upcoming summit risks bolstering the Turkish president’s position. Brussels has shown itself to be unwilling to use its economic muscle to get Erdoğan to change his behaviour. Instead, he will conclude that his intensified clampdown on the opposition poses no obstacle to better relations with Brussels. It is also a slap in the face to imprisoned journalists and arrested politicians. The proposed opening cannot be justified by any positive steps that Erdogan has taken at home – because there are none.

What makes this even more painful is the fact that the EU did not hesitate to sanction Russia and Belarus on human rights grounds as each country respectively pursued Alexey Navalny and cracked down on democratic protests. No unity exists on sanctioning Turkey, as the migrant gatekeeper has a fair few friends in EU capitals and, after all, is an important NATO member. 

As the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Turkey, I proposed to officially halt membership negotiations with Turkey due to its poor human rights record, but I never called for its complete isolation. We need to continue cooperation on migration, as Turkey still hosts some four million Syrian refugees. The EU must offer to extend substantial financial support for refugees, do more to resettle vulnerable refugees, and convince Greece to stop illegal pushbacks.

But offering better trade conditions without any conditions on democratic reforms would be a real waste of the strongest card the EU has. As long as Turkey refuses to implement verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights, it would be a bad signal to greenlight the start of negotiations on upgrading the EU-Turkey customs union. And, in the longer term, rather than investing in a future with Erdoğan, the EU should instead invest in closer cooperation with democratic forces in Turkey. They are the ones who believe in democratic values and are able to win hearts and minds in Turkey – which the voters confirm in the polls. As change will have to come from within, the most important contribution the EU and the U.S. could make would be to stand up for the rule of law, fair elections, and free media. Turkey’s democrats will remember whose side the West was on when it really mattered.

(A version of this article was originally published by the European Council on Foreign Relations website.)