Turkey and the European Union (EU) have been negotiating a deal that ostensibly would stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of migrants into Europe; Turkey, on its part, would bring dozens of laws and regulations, including its draconian anti-terror laws, in line with Europe's; and nearly 80 million Turks would then be given visa-free travel to the EU's borderless Schengen zone. But now, as Turkey refuses to amend its anti-terror laws, the deal seems to be facing a stalemate.
That is hardly the heart of the matter. In reality, both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the EU are pursuing a deal that will not work.
In theory, Turkey would complete some tough homework, containing a list of 72 items. All went well until recently, when apparently the most controversial item on the list, which obliged Turkey to change its anti-terror laws, stalled the deal.
On May 14, according to Hansjörg Haber, the EU's top envoy in Ankara, the European Commission was still working to find an acceptable solution to the impasse with Turkey over the definition of "terror." Haber commented that "Turkey has long been mature for visa liberalization. I personally feel we had to do it much long ago. I still remain optimistic that we will eventually manage it."
Days before that, Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear that he had no intention of changing the disputed legislation. In response, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that the visa requirement would not be lifted for Turks before all criteria were met. That, in Erdogan's words, would mean "you go your way and we go ours."
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (right) said that the visa requirement would not be lifted for Turks before all criteria in the EU-Turkey deal were met. That, in the words of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left), would mean "you go your way and we go ours." (Image source: Turkish President's Office)
Erdogan, for his part, wants to win the visa waiver in order to save millions of Turks from the torment of queuing up in front of European countries' embassies for visas -- undoubtedly a big vote-winner for him if he puts to a referendum the executive presidential system he so desperately craves.
The EU's leaders aim at a skillful balancing act: Return tens of thousands of future migrants to Turkey -- as stipulated in the accord -- and at the same time find a face-saving formula against criticism that to stop the flow of migrants, the European club is granting a totally undemocratic country what it wants. So, a little bit of pressure for a better-looking Turkish anti-terror law could help Brussels save face: We are not betraying our democratic culture merely to stop the migrant inflow; see how we forced Turkey to liberalize a key law!
That will be a commodity too hard to sell. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Turkey witnessed a drop in press freedom during the past year, as a result of a media crackdown that one prominent editor called a "witch-hunt." In its latest report, RSF ranked Turkey 151 out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index, down two points since 2015. It said:
"As many as 2,000 individuals – reporters, celebrities, academics and students – are reportedly being officially investigated on charges of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or spreading 'terrorist propaganda.'"
Erdogan's deep problem with free speech is not only limited to Turkey. It recently moved, ironically, into the heart of Europe. Erdogan sought and won -- from Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel -- a green light for the prosecution of comedian Jan Böhmermann, who recited a crude poem about the Turkish president, on German television.
In a letter published in the German daily Welt am Sonntag, Mathias Döpfner, chief executive of the German publisher Axel Springer, expressed solidarity with Böhmermann by saying he had laughed out loud at the poem and 'wholeheartedly' supported what Böhmermann said. Erdogan's lawyers sued Döpfner too. A German court rejected Erdogan's injunction against Döpfner, but Erdogan's lawyers said they would appeal that decision. This is the man the EU is, presumably, trying to convince that his country's anti-terror laws should be given a more democratic touch if he wants visa liberalization for the Turks.
The EU must understand -- or maybe it already has, but too late -- that it has too little, if any, leverage on a country that is going full speed toward darker days of Islamist authoritarianism. If they are not trying to fool a European population of more than 500 million with a too-cheap pragmatism, they should understand that in third world democracies such as Turkey, there is a vast gap between what laws say and how they are enforced.
Here is a nice assortment of what the Turkish constitution says about civil rights and abuse of religion in politics, in contrast with how real life in Erdogan's Turkey is about:
- Article 5, for example, promises "to ensure the welfare, peace and happiness of the individual and society (and) to strive for the removal of (obstacles) which restrict the fundamental rights and freedoms." Not funny enough?
- Take Article 10, then: "All individuals are equal before the law without any discrimination irrespective of language, race, color, sex, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion and sect or any such consideration."
- Article 20 states that "everyone has the right to demand respect for his private and family life.
- Article 22 guarantees that "secrecy of communications is fundamental."
- When read in 2016, Article 24 is probably one of the funniest in the whole charter: "Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religious belief and conviction ... No one shall be allowed to exploit or abuse religion or religious feelings ... for the purpose of personal or political influence, or for even partially basing the fundamental, social, economic, political and legal order of the State on religious tenets."
- It is not an awfully bad joke: Article 28 even claims "the press is free, and shall not be censored."
With or without legal amendments to its anti-terror laws or a deal with the EU, Erdogan's Turkey will de facto follow the path of Islamist autocracies, where any kind of dissent amounts to terrorism and treason.
Burak Bekdil, based in Ankara, is a Turkish columnist for the Hürriyet Daily and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.