A high-level political dialogue between EU top officials and Turkish ministers took place this week (25 July) in Brussels in the framework of dialogue and cooperation between the two sides. It was described as open, frank and even constructive but did not result in any common statement on the outstanding issues besides an understanding that the dialogue should continue.
Turkey was represented by its Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and EU Affairs Minister Ömer Çelik. On the EU side participated High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini and Commissioner Johannes Hahn, in charge of Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations.
If the Turkish representatives expected any progress in the stalled accession negotiations and the conclusion of a visa liberalization agreement, they must have been disappointed and their frustration was felt in the press conference after the meeting. They would like to open new chapters without any pre-conditions and complained about shortcomings in EU’s commitments.
EU is hardly in any position to restart the negotiation process as long as the state of emergency and the crackdown on real and imagined enemies continues in Turkey. The EU representatives, while using soft diplomatic language, left no doubt that the erosion of democratic rights and the turn to authoritarian rule in Turkey is a matter of serious concern.
“The rule of law, the right to a fair trial, due process, the freedom of expression and assembly, good neighborly relations are key principles that Turkey has committed to not only as a candidate country but also as a member of the Council of Europe,” Mogherini said at the press conference.
“We have witnessed a worrying pattern of imprisonments of a large number of members of the democratic opposition, journalists and human rights defenders in Turkey.”
When asked during the press conference if she had heard anything that would serve to ease her concerns about the situation in Turkey, Mogherini chose to reply indirectly:
“Many of our colleagues focus more on the red lines, I prefer to focus on what we have in common … We have raised what is very important for us, which is not so much to hear during our dialogues but to see concrete steps in the fields of rule of law, human rights, democracy, media freedom, the protection of human rights defenders, opposition leaders and so on and so forth.”
The Turkish ministers did not deny that members of parliaments and journalists have been arrested but claimed that it was because of their alleged links with terrorist organisations or because of spying on military bases.
“There are certain problems in our relations because of different mindsets and opinions,” Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said. “We distinguish between real and pseudo journalists and between terrorists and political activists.”
The EU representatives raised the issue of the worrying pattern of imprisonments of a large number of members of the democratic opposition, journalists and human rights defenders in Turkey but apparently did not discuss individual cases. The recent dispute between Germany and Turkey on the arrest of German nationals is seen as a bilateral issue between the two countries.
Mogherini added that it is “important that every single Member State develops good bilateral relations with Turkey and vice-versa. This is the healthy basis for an overall positive, constructive cooperation between EU and Turkey as a whole.”
On a question from a Turkish journalist whether EU intends to review its assessment of the Gulenist movement, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization being behind the failed coup last year, Mogherini was clear: “This assessment is normally initiated by one or more Member States and conducted by unanimity of Member States. I do not see this happening in this moment.”
Mogherini underlined that Turkey is both a candidate country, despite the stalemate in the accession negotiations, and a strategic partner for the EU with positive cooperation in several fields such as migration, energy, trade and regional and international issues. On migration, the EU reiterated its commitment to support Turkey in its efforts in hosting a huge number of Syrian refugees.
While EU prefers to continue with business as usual in these areas, Turkey is of the opinion that this is not enough and wants to restart the accession negotiations and upgrade the relations with EU. The high-level political dialogues have become a permanent substitute for real negotiations.
Hahn referred to the European Council decision last December – that was reconfirmed at a meeting of EU Ministers in Malta last April – not to open any new chapters while not formally suspending the negotiations or Turkey’s status as candidate country as some in the European Parliament have demanded.
His message on the visa liberalization issue was clear: “We will deliver our part of the deal as soon as Turkey meets all the remaining benchmarks. We stand ready to support Turkey on this last but difficult bit and we are talking about five remaining benchmarks out of 72.”
Hahn finished by stating that “All the positive potential we jointly address is, however, clearly conditioned to a reversal of the negative trend on democracy and fundamental rights in Turkey. This is where I am keen to see positive developments as soon as possible and I hope today’s meeting is a contribution to this positive development.”
Asked by The Brussels Times if the Kurdish issue in Turkey was discussed at the meeting – especially the replacement of elected local mayors by appointed officials and the arrest of members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – a spokesperson said:
“The EU has repeatedly expressed the importance of the full and effective participation of all democratically elected political parties in the legislature. EU follows closely the developments in the Southeast of Turkey.”
“EU expresses its firm believe that all violence and terrorist attacks must stop and arms must be laid down and a credible political process should be launched to achieve a peaceful and sustainable solution. EU is ready to support such a process.”
The spokesperson was also asked in which way EU and Turkey, as strategic partners, work together to bring an end to the war in Syria. Does EU share Turkey’s position that the Kurdish anti-Assad rebels in Syria (YPG) are terrorists and should not be allowed to take control of any liberated areas?
According to the spokesperson, the main areas of cooperation are the support for Turkey to handle the refugee crisis and cross-border humanitarian aid deliveries into Northern Syria.
EU also works closely with Turkey and other regional actors to bring about a peaceful political solution to the conflict in Syria. Turkey is one of EU’s key interlocutors the so-called Astana process to reach an agreement towards de-escalation of the conflict. However, EU will not play an active role in the establishment and monitoring of safe or de-escalation zones.
The Astana process is named after the capital of Kazakhstan where representatives of Syria, Russia, Turkey and Iran have met for talks to support a United Nations Security Council decision on Syria and to agree on a cease-fire.
Mogherini has stated in previous meetings that “it is not for EU to implement a de-escalation zone, but there could be things that EU could explore and consider to support the coming back to normal life in parts of Syria with the means we can put in place, once the decisions are implemented and respected.”
According to an EU official, the EU will continue to work over the next weeks at various levels to exchange views with the Turkish interlocutors on the way forward. “At the moment we have no details for the next meetings, but we will of course confirm in due time.”