Nacho Sánchez Amor, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Turkey, came to Turkey two weeks ago for a fact-finding mission. With the dust of his feet, he attended the hearing of the Gezi Park trial on Feb. 21 at the Çağlayan Courthouse. Just a few weeks before the hearing, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (CoE) decided to launch infringement proceedings against Turkey due to its refusal to implement the 2019 judgment of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and immediately release philanthropist businessperson Osman Kavala.
Europe was all eyes and ears. Would Ankara give way for Osman Kavala’s release in order to prevent the launch infringement proceedings at the Council of Europe? After all, Turkey was one of the founding members of the key European organization. Well, that did not happen. On Feb. 21, the judge once again ruled to keep Osman Kavala behind the bars despite the possible political consequences. It seems that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is determined to use Kavala’s case as a chilling example to scare all the dissident segments of the society.
Rapporteur Sanchez went to Ankara after Istanbul. He met one of his frequent contacts, Deputy Foreign Minister Faruk Kaymakçı, however, he could not meet anyone from the ruling AKP. Numan Kurtulmuş, whom he had an appointment with, caught Covid-19 right before his visit and thus had to cancel their meeting. Eventually the governing party could not find another high-level name to meet with the European Parliament’s Turkey Rapporteur because all of them were extremely busy. Many of them were accompanying President Erdoğan on his Africa expedition. Of course, nothing could be more important than traveling on the same plane with him for anyone that works for him.
Since I could not physically catch Nacho Amor Sanchez before he left Ankara, I talked to him via Zoom after he returned to Brussels. Sanchez said that not being able to meet with anyone from the AKP was not an issue. Therefore, I would like to underline that the above criticism is my own. I believe if those who often find it politically convenient to say “EU membership is still our strategic goal” were serious and honest, the decisions of the ECHR would be implemented first, and then, an influential interlocutor would be found to talk to one of the key guys dealing with Turkey’s accession process in Brussels.
All in all, not much has changed on the Western front. In fact, Ankara is not alone in pretending as if there is a true accession process going on. The last thing the European Union would think about right now is Turkey’s membership. It would not be unfair to say that the general mood on the EU side is as follows; since we can talk about neither “accession” nor reforms, let’s talk about other things to keep Turkey anchored to the West.
What really excited Amor was the meetings he had with the leaders of the opposition parties. He thinks that Turkey will now have a more vibrant political life, he says, “You have entered the election zone.”
What was the purpose of your recent visit? Are you satisfied with what you observed?
The visit is part of the mission that every rapporteur has to conduct before drafting the report. It has to be done on a yearly basis. This is the normal procedure; to come back and discuss with my colleagues and then to draft the report on Turkey’s accession process. The report that has to be delivered in May this year, maybe June, but probably May.
I met Faruk Kaymakçı at the Foreign Ministry. I tried to see Numan Kurtulmuş but he had Covid-19 so we had to cancel. But it is ok. I have regular contacts, phone calls through open channels to address my concerns to the government. I have frequent contacts with the EU delegation in Brussels. No complaints at all. I have always been received with the most kind and friendly way from the official layer of the country. This time it was difficult to reach some ministers because some of them were in Africa and some of them were around Turkey. So, no complaints at all.
I understand that you have amicable relations with your counterparts, and it was unfortunate that Mr. Numan Kurtulmuş had to cancel. But as a journalist who has been following relations in the last 20 years, I find it odd that another high-level official from the AKP cannot be found to meet with someone in your official position. Faruk Kaymakçı is a career diplomat. Of course, he holds the title of “deputy minister” but he is not a political figure. Doesn’t this show that the AKP government does not see the relations with the EU as a priority? Do you ever get this feeling?
No, no. I had the opportunity to talk to Mr. Çavuşoğlu when he came to Brussels. He offered me a very wide slot. We even did one-on-one. I highly appreciated it. Whatever has been the situation or the tensions between Turkey and the EU, we always had the channels open, even in the worst period two years ago. Mr. Çavuşoğlu has always been very kind. So, I do not take any kind of reading with any political stance. The channels are open. The mood is better now.
Better mood thanks to the easing of tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean
Can you elaborate on this “better mood” between Ankara and Brussels? Because in last year’s report on Turkey’s accession, the European Parliament openly called for the suspension of the talks if there is no progress in known areas like independence of judiciary, respect to freedom of expression and freedom of thought. Let alone progress, the AKP government continued with implementation of grave human rights violations since your report. But today, you are viewing the atmosphere between Turkey and the EU in a “better mood”. Does this have anything to do with Ankara’s policy on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What is the game-changer for the European side?
Well, I had said that “we are in a better mood” before the triggering of the Ukraine crisis. We are in a better mood because the tension in the Eastern Mediterranean has been eased. There is a more conducive environment to talk about anything. We note with satisfaction the statements from the Turkish government addressing the EU in a dismissive or even insulting way are finished. The narrative from the Turkish government is that the future of Turkey is in Europe. This is excellent. We resumed the high-level talks in several areas. The EU also showed openness to discuss the Customs Union. This is also my position. We are not asking for any preconditions to sit and talk. But this process also has to be accompanied by political reforms. Because eventually it will be the European Parliament which will have the last word on adopting a new Customs Union. And we made it very clear from the very beginning that if there is no progress in the rule of law or human rights during the negotiations of the Customs Union, we are not going to finalize anything. The other condition has been clarified by the European Commission; we have to solve the current framework problem of the Customs Union. There are some technical issues that we have to deal with. As Parliament, we are going to ask for concrete reforms before we adopt a new negotiated Customs Union with Turkey.
As I said, we are coming back to a certain normality and trust. But why cannot this picture be completed? Because there is no progress on human rights and rule of law. These two are at the core of the accession process. I told my Turkish colleagues that “In this year’s report, we are trying to depict many fields but there is no progress in the accession process because at the core of the accession process are human rights and rule of law.” Not only no major improvement, no improvements at all.
The reluctance of Turkey to abide by the rulings of the ECHR is an example of this reluctance to engage in real reforms.
No improvements at all on human rights and rule of law
The European Union side is happy with the direction of the dialogue, but this does not mean that accession talks are on the right track. This is how I summarize what you’ve just explained. Am I correct?
We appreciate a good mood and a more conducive environment to engage but regarding human rights and rule of law, there are no improvements at all. This is a great concern for our side. In any way we cannot support, advance or endorse formal discussions on an accession process because there are no grounds for that. We can talk about many things. But when we have to enter the discussions on opening of the chapters concerning human rights and rule of law, we can’t simply do that. That is why it has become the traditional stance of the European Parliament asking for the formal suspension of the accession talks.
Who did you meet in opposition?
I meet Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu, Ms. Akşener, Mr. Babacan, Mr. Davutoğlu. I had the opportunity to appreciate their efforts to try to prepare a common offer for the country ranging from economy to human rights and rule of law. They were optimistic – all of them – regarding their position in the elections. I saw that they had a feeling that their offers were well received. They are getting a lot of attention from the media. I noticed that even newly established parties like Mr. Davutoğlu’s party now have roots in society. That means Turkey is probably going to have a livelier political life. It is clear that the country is entering a pre-electoral environment. If the elections are going to be next year as planned, it is going to be a long period of pre-electoral environment. It has been a very good opportunity to see what the stances of the opposition are. From the AKP, I met Mr. Karayel, the chair of the joint parliamentary commission. This is another good news; we will be having meetings at the parliamentary level which did not happen in the last six years. The first one will be this month in Brussels physically.
The EU does not take sides
As you said, now the opposition block is offering a transition back to a reformed parliamentary system. But what also struck my attention in the declaration after their first meeting are the promises concerning the EU. They expressed commitment to abiding by the rules of the ECHR. It is also a symbol of the opposition bloc’s commitment to the accession talks. This observation, coupled with what you said in your press conference before you left Ankara, were reported by pro-government media outlets as if the EU is picking a political side for the next elections in Turkey? Is this true; are you taking a political side?
No, we are not. We have to assess the situation and the new political situation is that there are many new voices in political life in Turkey. But I met four leaders from the opposition, and I explained that in my press conference. But we are not taking sides, we never did in any moment. This is not our role. But it is very clear that we have been very critical with the AKP rule especially in areas concerning human rights and rule of law. But when I am asked by reporters to depict my mission in Turkey, I have to comment on my meetings with the opposition leaders. Commenting on my meetings is not a kind of endorsement. I have been to Turkey other times as a member of an international observation mission in two elections. I know the field very well. I know what kind of game some media outlets in Turkey play very well. For example, they report on my press conferences and hide the critical stuff. I know they are looking at my every word to say that I am pressing the government, or I am acting in a biased way. But I am not worried about the stance of those outlets.
Demirtaş Case is similar to Kavala’s: The results will be exactly the same
Then you also know very well that the same circles manufacture conspiracy theories on why the Europeans have been persistently calling on the release of Osman Kavala? The fact that there is a very strong unified stance from all the European community and institutions about his unjust, unlawful arrest, is mostly interpreted by government circles, as a sign that Osman Kavala is more than a businessperson for the West. Is there a chance for putting accession talks on the right course even if Kavala is not released as ruled by the ECHR?
Yes, I am very well aware that Turkish society is keen on following those kinds of conspiracy theories. First, Kavala was and has been a completely irrelevant figure from a political point of view. But this prosecution created a political figure. Not many European officials had heard of Mr. Kavala before the prosecution. Second, why are we insisting on Kavala? Because we have the ruling of the ECHR. It is as simple as that. And that means Turkey has the legal obligation to abide by the ECHR. The Turkish state has been part of the procedure; they have brought lawyers and attended hearings. Then the Turkish state lost. How can you not abide by a ruling following a procedure that you have been a part of?
The ECHR rulings are addressed to the Turkish state, not to the government. That means the judiciary has to abide by them. This is not interference. Because Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe and a party to the European Convention on Human Rights. The legal obligation of Turkey is before the Council of Europe, not the European Union. We are not part of the legal process, but we have to assess what Turkey delivers on human rights and rule of law. So, if Turkey does abide by the Kavala ruling, then it is clear that Turkey is not addressing its responsibilities.
Why Kavala? Because Kavala’s legal procedure in front of the ECHR was more advanced. But we are going exactly the same in the Demirtaş case. Apparently, the results are going to be the same. As the European Parliament we are asking Turkey to abide by the decision of the ECHR. This is about the Turkish Constitution. ECHR rulings are part of your judicial system. ECHR is part of your judicial system; it is not an alien from space.
Good that Turkey realized that its news friends are not as reliable as the EU
Ankara condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine but did not join the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the EU. On the other hand, Turkish-made drones are being used by the Ukrainian Air Force to counter Russian attacks. This policy is somewhat at odds with President Erdoğan’s close relationship with Putin in the last five years. Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system has been a source of great concern in the West, raising questions about Turkey’s position in the NATO alliance. Do you think the conflict in Ukraine might change the perception in the West about President Erdoğan’s intentions?
It is good that Turkey has been clearly stating its position. I praise President Erdoğan’s position. Turkey is where it has to be. It is a member of NATO. It is a country with a relevant role in this part of the world. It can be a broker in some way, and this is good.
For many years we have been diverging with Turkey on foreign affairs. In Libya, East-Med, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey and the European Union had different views. But now, Turkey is on the right side of history regarding this inexplicable war ignited by Russia.
I remember when Turkey conducted that operation in Syria, I remember Mr. Erdoğan was very happy for brokering the agreement with Russians to be allowed to enter into this buffer zone. I said publicly that you are going to discover that your new powerful friends are not as reliable as the European Union. And this is the situation today. At the moment Putin has no friends, including Erdoğan. It is good that Turkey has realized that its new friends are not as reliable as the European Union. The EU is reliable because it is predictable. I am glad to see Turkey has finally assessed how these new friends are friends as long as their desires are met. I am sure that Mr. Erdoğan will never bend to the orders and wishes of other powers. The commitment of Mr. Erdoğan to NATO is good news.