Piri: 'PKK is not a threat for us but ISIS is'

Turkey and the European Union have different priorities when it comes to Syria as Europe is not targeted by Kurdish militants, but by Islamic State, while the Turkish government has never seen the extreme jihadist group as its biggest threat, the European Parliament's Turkey rapporteur Kati Piri told Ahval in an interview.

The Dutch member of parliament also said that if Turkey did move to an executive presidential system next year that was approved in a referendum, a red line would be crossed and there was no point in continuing Turkey’s accession talks.

She said Turkey needed to show progress on the issue of human rights if any progress was to be made in updating its customs union with the bloc.

Turkish government officials have said that any opposition to Turkey’s military operation in the Afrin district of Syria will be considered support for terrorism. What kind of effect do you think the operation will have on freedom of expression in Turkey? 

My role as the rapporteur on Turkey focuses pretty much on the internal developments and not so much on the foreign policy. In respect of any military operation or any kind of government policy, as we saw in the last couple of days peaceful ways of expressing discontent are being punished. We see many people get arrested simply for their tweets. Nurcan Baysal, a Kurdish activist and writer was one of them I also know personally. This is not a force of violence this is not a support for terrorism. This is not how we see it in Europe. These are not the first people who are being arrested for discontent with any government policy. Unfortunately, we see that continuing now with the Afrin operation …  

Next month we are going to discuss the internal human rights situation in Turkey … but we have to have a debate on Afrin as well. 

It was anyway difficult to talk about positive developments on the Kurdish issue since the talks collapsed. You still have parliamentarians in jail, 79 mayors of Kurdish origin in jail; you have security operations in the southeast of Turkey. In the end, we all know there has to be a political solution to this question, there cannot be a military solution to it. When the Kurdish question is not solved in Turkey, the question kind of moved to Syria. A large part of your population with Kurdish origin have legitimate demands, therefore the domestic issue became a foreign policy issue.


As a European, do you feel any safer when you hear about operations like Afrin, where Turkey secures its borders also against ISIS, foreign fighters and other possible threats that could reach Europe?

In general, we underestimate in Europe how many powers that are in play in Syria. It is no longer about the Syrians and, of course, Turkey is much more affected than many of us who live further away from the border. Turkey is affected because of refugees and foreign fighters. Turkey is affected more than any country.   

Here is the issue; for us, the Kurdish militia, the PKK and its variations are not a threat. There are no attacks of PKK in the Netherlands, Belgium or France. For us, when it comes to Syria, apart from the humanitarian catastrophe the threat is ISIS.

The number one threat for Turkey is not ISIS. After decades of fighting with the PKK, now moving this fight to Syria, I can imagine that ISIS is not its priority. This also showed itself in the international coalition against ISIS that Turkish government’s priority was never ISIS.


The Turkish government says this operation will also help refugees go back to their homes. Does that idea change anything for you? Does it help you see it in a better light?

Look, refugees are there whether they are Kurdish origin or not. Most refugees want to go back one day. For that, we don’t need more military operations. We need to find political solutions. For that, you need impartial players that are not involved in the conflict, like the United Nations. I believe an impartial process that also has the legitimacy of the international community can only make this work. 


Do you think the EU has made the necessary assessment of Turkey’s referendum vote last year to move to an executive presidency?

The EU hasn’t made this assessment yet. The Commission say this will come in the April report and I know some member states are pushing for earlier political assessment for Turkey. However, I don’t think there is a lot of doubt about what this impact will be. We already have the report of the Venice Commission from the Council of Europe that states very clearly its heavy concerns with the amendments to the constitution. I myself and the majority of the parliament share those concerns.

If in 2019 these are implemented without any changes then I don’t think we should even continue to talk about a possible accession of Turkey. For us the red line, the point of no return so to speak, is the implementation of the constitutional reforms in 2019.


You have spoken in favour of updating Turkey’s customs union with the EU, but the European Parliament has said there political criteria should be first. What is the position now?

When I draft my report that’s my opinion, but after we come to a joint position, it becomes as the European Parliament’s opinion. As of then on I always have to defend the common position of the parliament because that’s the consensus. Now clearly Germany has blocked this upgrade of the customs union in the parliament and now we see the same situation in the coalition talks in Germany.

It is clear that the EU has lost its political attractiveness to the Turkish government. If we had been politically attractive, we would have seen a bit more leverage about our concerns, right? None of our concerns are taken into account for the last several years. Where is the EU still attractive to the Turkish government? I think it is at the economic level.

So we are forced to use the economic sphere to work out the political relations. If we had been discussing the customs union two years ago, it would have been pretty much a technical debate. We would look at the fact that it is both good for the EU and Turkey. However, the situation is fundamentally different now because to establish a better customs union we need to make sure there is functioning rule of law and an independent judiciary for investment, trade and to do any kind of business. Therefore, even the only thing we could move forward with, has become extremely politicised.

Let’s take my country for example, we still do not have an ambassador in Turkey. How could our prime minister explain to his parliament and citizens that the Netherlands is starting the modernisation of the customs union? It is difficult. For Germany, it is the same. As long as Deniz Yücel is in jail, how can any German politician say that doesn’t matter?  

We need to see some positive signals before we open the negotiation. The negotiations can last for years, but give us one signal that you are serious about your commitments.


When you see a constitutional court ruling ignored by a local court in a negotiating country, how important is this?

This case can affect all the individual cases in Turkey, therefore, it is very significant and fundamental. It will also affect the whole relation of Turkey with the Council of Europe. The conclusion of this case can be that there is no domestic legal remedy that has to be first exhausted before it can come to the European Court of Human Rights. That would mean over 100,000 cases going directly to ECHR. That would be a collapse. The council cannot handle it. That would even put membership rights into question.


If it is this much fundamental why do you think the European Commission waited six days to respond?

Let me put it this way; it is definitely much more serious than the late reaction of the European Union or how they stated it.


You have said an EU-Turkey summit shouldn't be just for photographs. It should have solid outcomes. If you could choose one solid outcome that matters the most what would it be?

Ending the state of emergency. Whoever I speak to, this is the root of most injustice right now in Turkey. Everything is being done without the parliament without any accountability. It is the basis.