Like Poland, like Turkey: the Istanbul Convention as a rupture point

The Istanbul Convention may become the new rupture point between the European Union and Turkey. Gender rights are just starting to be a battleground in Turkey, Poland and beyond.

The Istanbul Convention may become the new rupture point between the European Union and Turkey. Just as Turkey started to toy with the idea of withdrawal from the “Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence,” Poland formally declared that it will begin the process of withdrawing from the treaty, as announced by Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro. Ziobro told Reuters on July 25 that the Istanbul Convention “contains elements of an ideological nature which we consider harmful.” 

By July 30, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was passing the buck to Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal to examine whether the Istanbul Convention on combating domestic violence is in line with the Polish constitution.

Morawiecki argued that “there were many serious accusations in the public discussion against the Istanbul Convention, namely that it violates Poland's legal order, has an ideological basis, incorrectly defines the real sources of violence against women and does not provide effective tools in the fight against domestic violence.”

And now, Poland is having its first taste of bitter medicine as EU funds are being denied to six “unnamed” Polish towns because of “LGBT ideology-free zones legislation” adopted by their authorities. On July 27, the European Commission approved a list of 127 projects submitted to the “Town Twinning” program, and the Polish towns that adopted anti-LGBT directives have been prima facie rejected. The total budget of the “Town Twinning” program is around 2.5 million euros: two towns applying together are eligible for grants of up to 25,000 euros and a network of towns is eligible for up to 150,000 euros. This move may seem small, but it is the first of decisive steps introducing financial consequences for Poland in an ongoing conflict over the issues of gender rights and LGBT discrimination specifically. Moreover, the Polish administrative provinces of Lublin, Łódź, Małopolska, Podkarpackie, and Świętokrzyskie were invited by the EU Commission to investigate and respond as to whether resolutions declaring these provinces “free from LGBT ideology” or adopting “Charters of Family Rights” are discriminatory actions.

A month ago, on July 8, when Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the European Parliament regarding the priorities of Germany’s EU Council Presidency, she affirmed that the protection of fundamental rights is one of their top priorities. She then had to face ice-cold criticism from a young, sparkling and progressive European Parliamentarian from Hungary: Katalin Cseh from the grassroots movement Momentum. Cseh did not mince words, complaining about “empty words” when accusing the EU governments about “postponing action against the Viktor Orbán government for a decade.” Cseh also pointed out that the EU funds transferred to Hungary were funneled into corruption and hampered the rule of law. She asked for the implementation of schemes ensuring that the EU funds are actually transferred to trustworthy hands, to communities and areas where they are really needed and would make a difference. 

Merkel did reply with decorative sentences, saying: 

“It is important that we defend the rule of law, which is one of our goals during the German Presidency. We will say our opinions openly, even if it is about Viktor Orbán and we have a different opinion about what is happening in Hungary.”

Now, the EU is actually taking some action against Poland and is showing the stick to Hungary and any other EU country ready to merrily trample on fundamental rights. 

If Turkey actually withdraws from the Istanbul Convention, then Ankara may have to face consequences in the form of actual financial cuts and constrictions. 

A study by MetroPOLL in July found out that around 64% of the public is against withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, while a mere 17% approves of such a move. Meanwhile, around 19% have “no idea.” The majority of voters from all parties are against the withdrawal, including around 50% of AK Party voters. 

The majority of AK Party supporters are still female voters (around 40% of the women in Turkey vote for the party, according to MetroPOLL's July data), and AK Party women’s branches have been vocally against withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention. 

While possible pressures from the EU and grassroots may make the AK Party shelve the withdrawal plan, populist ideologies seem to have found a renewed zest in neo-conservative rhetoric within anti-LGBT, “pro-family,” “pro-traditionalism” policies. 

Mark my words that gender rights are just starting to be a battleground in Turkey, Poland and beyond.

September 29, 2021 A post-Merkel Turkey