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Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed, and that is how we have ended up with our position today ”

Kati Piri is a Dutch Member of the European Parliament (MEP) who belongs to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats. As the Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur since 2014, she has earned the reputation of being an outspoken critic of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party, the AKP. We talked with her after the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs adopted her report on 20th February calling for the suspension of EU accession talks with Ankara. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the document will be voted on in the Parliament’s general assembly. The Turkish government considers the Foreign Affairs Committee’s vote “unacceptable” and if the majority of MEPs approves the report, the strained relations between the Turkish government and the European Union will certainly not be soothed.

Part 1

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As its rapporteur on Turkey, how do you see the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs action since 2014 when it comes to the situation in Turkey?

Well, being the rapporteur on Turkey for that committee means that much of what the committee did was at my recommendation.

We should not forget that at the beginning of the mandate, this Parliament still called for the opening of chapters 23 and 24 .

This is not a parliament which is hostile to Turkey. When I started as rapporteur, we had a totally different position because, despite the fact that things were already problematic in Turkey, we thought that the EU should use the tools at its disposal, including the opening of chapters, to try to positively influence democratic developments in the country. That did not happen.

The European Council [hereinafter referred as “Council”] never went that far and I criticized them for that in my latest report, which was adopted on 20th February by the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

After the coup attempt, the Turkish government decided not only to purge all followers of the Gülen movement but also to arrest 9 HDP members of the Turkish parliament, including Selahattin Demirtaş, and some Cumhurriyet journalists. In November 2016 the European Parliament (EP) called for a freeze on the accession negotiations. That was the first time we took a tougher stance and in 2017, when we saw things deteriorating further, we thought it was necessary for the EP to draw a red line, and our red line was the new constitution.

We adopted the position that if Turkey’s new constitution was implemented without any of the Venice Commission’s recommendations, we would call for a formal suspension of the accession talks. However, at the time, in 2017, the presidential elections were to take place in 2019, so we thought that Turkey would have 2 years to make adjustments to the new constitution. But they pushed forward the election and implemented the new constitution very quickly without making any substantial changes to it. We think that our red line – the one we have been warning Turkey about ever since the coup attempt, and that they did not take seriously – has been crossed, and that is how we have ended up with our position today.

On 20th February, after the Foreign Affairs Committee voted in favour of suspending the accession negotiations with Turkey, Marietje Schaake (a Liberal MEP) said: “Contrary to the member states and the European Commission, the European Parliament does not shy away from taking a clear stance on the accession negotiations with Turkey”. On the same day, you wrote on Twitter that “in the Council there seems to be no willingness to” formally suspend talks with Turkey. Do you think that some of the EU institutions’ lack of policy to tackle human rights violations and the crackdown on the justice system is mainly due to the Refugee Deal?

Of course, the role that the Refugee Deal plays is an issue, but certainly not the only issue. Let’s not forget that we have internal problems in the EU, as you can see with the article 7 sanctions procedures against Hungary and Poland, which means that we also have very serious democratic deficit issues inside the EU.

There are also some geopolitical issues. I do not think that it is in the interest of the EU for Turkey to drift away from the West, where it has belonged for decades.

I also think that the big difference is that in the EP, we vote by majority and in the Council, unanimity is needed. That has always been the problem with EU foreign policy. If there is no unanimity on a topic, the Council cannot take a tougher position. I am absolutely sure that there are many heads of states who would also like to send a clearer signal to Turkey, but there are some who do not, hence there is no position in the Council.

How decisive and/or powerful are the EP’s (usually quite critical) stances on Turkey? Do they have any real effects?

These are complicated questions. The question is also: effect on who? If you ask me if our position on Turkey’s accession will influence the Council: Yes. But do I think that it is very likely that in June the Council will call for the suspension of the accession talks? No. For instance, in November 2016, the EP took a very strong and united stance on freezing membership talks with Turkey. I think it was adopted with almost 90% of the votes. You cannot simply ignore that, and they did not –  they could not.

On the other hand, if a country or government does not really want to become a member of the EU, which is now the case with the current government in Turkey, the EP’s influence is much less important. Because if it does not really care about the EU’s opinion on things, given the fact it does not really want membership (using it only as a rhetoric), the influence of any EU institution, not just the EP, is obviously less effective.

If Turkey was genuinely committed to wanting to join the EU, it would have been smart to take the EP’s position into consideration, but, clearly, it did not. There has not been a Turkish minister in the EP for the last 3 years. For the last 2 years, the government decided not to have meetings with me, the rapporteur on Turkey. Last time I was there none of the ruling party ministers wanted to meet. It is quite stupid if you consider that the EP decides on visa liberalisation, the upgrade of the Customs Union, the EU’s budget, including the funds for Turkey, etc. It is not a very smart diplomatic move to treat the EP the way that they do.

As you have just said, you have recently (from 15 – 19 October 2018) visited Turkey, where you had the chance to discuss the political and economic situation in the country with political parties, business and civil society representatives. How did that trip influence the EP Turkey 2018 report published some weeks after?

Normally, the basis for the EP report is always the European Commission’s country report which is published a couple of months earlier.

They have many people to look into various aspects of the accession process, and that is the report to which the EP reacts. What the EP normally does, because the European Commission’s report is very long, is mainly focus on issues like the judiciary and press freedom, which have always been key issues for the EP.

So, what I always try to do in Turkey is to speak with the government, the opposition parties (which I also met this time), the trade unions, the business environment, the NGOs, and sometimes I do an extra work visit to another city other than Istanbul or Ankara. Last time I went to Mardin. These talks have naturally influenced the report. For instance, in Mardin, I spoke with the Armenian community there, so that is reflected in the report. I know that for many Christian Democrat politicians, this is a key issue. And so is the way in which Turkey leads with religious minorities.

And the Armenian genocide, I guess…

Yes, but, to be honest, I do not think that that should be part of the accession talks. And it is not. Actually, we didn’t mention it in the report, except for a reference to the parliament’s position. It is only in the “having regards” part, not in the text of the report. Since I was appointed rapporteur, this is the way we deal with it. In the latest report, there is no reference to it, not because the EP does not have a clear position, but because we think it should not be written in the Turkey report which deals with accession.

One of the other things I did during my last visit to Turkey is I met with the trade unions who are representing the workers of the new airport in Istanbul. We talked about how many people died and everything that has happened there in terms of violations of the rights of the workers. This is something which is reflected in the report.

Besides that, as you know, I am following very closely the case of Selahattin Demirtaş, so I visited his family and his lawyers in Diyarbakır to hear the latest information about his case.

These are all issues which are in the report.

In January 2018, you told Turkish newspaper Hürriyet that the EU has made some serious mistakes in its policy on Turkey. Would you like to give some examples?

I think the moment that we allowed Cyprus in without having a solution to the Cyprus problem is the moment we gave up with the unanimity rule of ever finding a good policy on Turkey. If you have a member state which can and will always block certain strategies with Turkey… I think that is a big mistake.

The biggest leverage for finding a solution on Cyprus was EU membership, and we gave it away without even having a solution there.

The other mistake is the fact that the EU has always been dishonest about the accession process. I was recently at a conference and a Turkish participant said, “Well, after this EU parliament voting, thank God we still have Merkel”. And I started to laugh, I just thought, ‘Are you serious?‘. Merkel is the figure who, from 2005, probably never believed in the accession process of Turkey. This is hypocrisy. Even if Turkey were a perfect democracy, Merkel and, for instance, Sarkozy would not want Turkey in the EU. That is the difference with me.

I do not think that Turkey does not belong in the EU. In my opinion, it is a European country. Of course, the EU would need some reforms before being able to take in such a big country, but I think we could do it. I am of the opinion that many people in Turkey share many of our values.

From my point of view, you cannot have any leverage in an EU-Turkey relationship if you do not make it a credible process and we never did that with the accession talks. We forgot about Turkey; we never had EU-Turkey summits until we needed them for the Refugee Deal.

Throughout the Refugee Deal, we did not keep our promise related to a large-scale resettlement, the opening of chapters, the visa and the Customs Union, etc. I very much understand why a lot of the Turkish electorate look cynically at the whole process.

It is quite normal to hear in Turkey that “they do not really want us to be part of the European club”.

Yes, and the saddest part is that the EP was always the strongest supporter of the actual accession of Turkey.

We constantly called for the opening of accession chapters. The Council was always much more cynical and it remained more cynical than it is today. But under the current circumstances, I simply do not think it is credible to have this rhetoric of accession when everyone knows that Turkey is very, very far away from meeting even the minimum criteria. Let’s not even try to talk about the accession process –  that is just a theoretical discussion under the current circumstances – when you have all these journalists and human rights defenders in jail.

What do you think about that idea some people have that the EU does not want Turkey because it is a Muslim country?

It has always been the Christian-Democratic political family with that opinion. Do they rule the whole EU? No. Do they have a big influence on the EU? Yes. But, for sure, that is not why the EP is calling for the formal suspension of the accession talks.

My group, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, has always believed that Turkey is and should be a candidate country to become a member of the EU. Our position on that has not changed, but the developments inside Turkey have drastically deteriorated. So, it is obvious that there are people in the EU who do not want Turkey to be a member. I would say that even a larger part of the public is now of that opinion. But that is also because of what we have seen President Erdoğan doing in the last few years. These things influence each other.

According to a new survey by Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, around 52% of Turks support Turkey’s EU membership application. What message would you like to send them?

First, let me be clear: even if we call for suspension of the accession talks, Turkey will remain a candidate country to become a member of the EU. I do not think it makes any sense to continue to talk about accession with this government. We even put in the report that our call is without prejudice to article 49 of the EU, which is about accession. It does not mean that in the future Turkey can never become a member of the EU.

But I think: what is the value of the EU? Its freedoms, its economical attraction… A lot of people in Turkey still want their country to go in that direction! If we do not want to keep up these values with a candidate country, Europe will lose this attraction it has. That is why I am in favour of having these article 7 procedures against Poland and Hungary because I think these are the values we need to uphold. The same applies for a country who wants to join the EU. I would say to these people: please send your messages to your own government, do not blame the EU for this. Blame your own government for not implementing the reforms which are necessary for visa-free travel.

The EP have clearly said that when Turkey fulfills the criteria, we will vote in favour of visa liberalisation. Push your government to reform the last criteria for visa-free travel. The same goes for the modernisation of the Customs Union. Our economies are so interlinked that it is also important for us that Turkey remains a healthy economy, and it is in the interest of Turkish voters as well.

But to modernise this trade relationship, we need to see some positive signs when it comes to democratic reforms. I would say that the key lies in Ankara and therefore if the Turkish public is strong enough in raising this issue with their own government, real steps forward can be made.

José Miguel Rocha
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