EU and Turkey are drowning relations

On March 2, Turkey’s Action Plan on Human Rights was announced and intended to fix Turkey-EU relations. However, Turkey faces two upcoming decisions: The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe with infringement proceedings and the European Union Council leaders with the extension of sanctions. As both sides scramble to save the day, further sanctions and the Action Plan on Human Rights do not look like solutions, and they may just drown relations in the process.

March 8 was supposed to be a day of celebration as International Women’s Day. However, news of femicide and violence directed against women plagued the airways throughout the weekend, and once again urban centers were besieged by police control throttling the celebration.

During the week before, on March 2, Turkey’s new Action Plan on Human Rights was announced with much fanfare. The Turkish version of the plan consists of 128 pages which look very official. After all, the cost for the plan was 9,375 euros per page; the total budget of the project, solely for compilation of the plan, was 1.2 million euros.

As reported by the Council of Europe Programme Office in Ankara’s web page: “The total budget of the Action is 1.200.000 Euros. The budget allocated to the overall Horizontal Facility programme amounts to ca. 41 Million EUR (85% funded by the European Union, 15% by the Council of Europe).”

The project started on Sept. 1, 2019 and was due to finish on March 1, 2021, which is why the Action Plan on Human Rights in Turkey popped up on the second day of March. The stake holders of the plan are the Justice Ministry, Justice Academy, Ministry of Interior, judiciary, and “other relevant authorities as well as lawyers, academics, journalists and civil society organizations.” We have yet to learn who exactly are these “relevant authorities” are, as the activities in the plan remained totally elusive even for actively engaged with human rights.

The Action Plan on Human Rights was intended to be a quick fix for both Ankara and the EU. On March 9-11, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe will be meeting. The committee is responsible for overseeing the implementation of European Court of Human Rights’ judgements. They will be reviewing Turkey’s noncompliance with the “Kavala case” for the fourth time. As a reminder, human rights activist-businessperson Osman Kavala has been under arrest with pretrial detention since November 2017.

The “worst outcome” of the Committee of Ministers may be that it chooses to begin infringement proceedings against Turkey on the grounds that Ankara is refusing to implement European Court of Human Rights’ judgements. Meaning, with 2/3 of the votes of the Committee of Ministers, Turkey’s voting rights within the Council of Europe and eventually membership may be suspended. In 2017, Azerbaijan went through the same processes as a result to it repeatedly refusing the release opposition politician Ilgar Mammadov.

Aside from the Council of Europe meeting, Turkey needs to face another major European decision: the European Union Council leaders will be meeting on March 25-26 to decide whether sanctions against Turkey will be extended in scope.

On Feb. 21, I wrote that, “it seems quite unlikely that the EU will impose further, tangible sanctions on Turkey at the March 25-26 Summit. Unless something drastic and unpredictable happens, in other words, if there is no ‘Black Swan,’ we should not expect any stinging sanctions at this stage.” Now, with the Action Plan on Human Rights acting as the most exquisite cloak, the possibility of sanctions looms even most distant on the horizon.

In my view, sanctions are not the most effective, policies, especially towards Turkey. However, I do not think a fix, such as the Action Plan on Human Rights, is the way forward in the EU-Turkey relations either. The EU taxpayers will not be thrilled when they find out that they are funding an extravagant plan which is unlikely to even be implemented.

On the other hand, Ankara may seemingly be saving the day with its lofty Action Plan on Human Rights. At the end of the day, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is shoveling millions of dollars into hopeless lobbying efforts in the United States. The Action Plan is great public relations and plus, you get paid on top of it.

A veteran diplomat Marc Pierini wrote last week that, “Ankara’s goal in dealing with Europe is clearly to limit the future agenda with the EU to trade, economic matters, and refugee arrangements. Simply put, the survival of Turkey’s autocratic system of government now in place—and of the Islamist-nationalist coalition in power—rests on thwarting the remaining democratic features of Turkey’s electoral process and the functioning of society. A further deterioration is in the cards.

The EU’s perception of the situation is naturally the opposite of Turkey’s: any agreement of substance with Ankara will need to be accompanied by a measurable return to the rule of law and a confident relationship in the military domain. This is the attitude not only of politicians in the European Parliament and many national parliaments but also, increasingly, of business circles. How can the EU adopt further sanctions on Russia over the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, or on Belarus or Myanmar, and look the other way when it comes to Turkey? How can European businesses invest hundreds of millions of euros in the years to come if Turkey’s judiciary remains so politicized?”

Both the EU and Turkey are trying to save the day, but drowning relations in the process. The key conundrum underlined by Pierini remains unresolved, just delayed. But until how long?

March 26, 2021 Living on borrowed time