Vocal Europe: How do you see the recent political changes in Turkey, especially the resignation of the former Prime Minister, Mr. Davutoglu ? He was replaced by Mr. Binali Yıldırım, former Minister of Transport and Communication, a close ally to President Erdogan? Do you think that this shift is going to bring Turkey closer to the European Union or to drift it away?
Kati Piri: I think that this change would make clear and what most Turks already knew is that there is no separation of powers between the government and the President: there is one leadership who is President Erdogan.
What we are observing now in Turkey is more centralization of the power in the hands of one person. The new government was announced from the Presidential Palace and that does not need more comments than stating the facts: Turkey is heading to a presidential system. That in itself is not good or bad, closer or not closer to Europe, as we have presidential systems in Europe as well and I cannot say that they are less democratic. Though, a system without any checks and balances, at a moment when we see those political developments and, at the same time that the rule of law is deteriorating in the country, is certainly not bringing Turkey closer to Europe.
VE: Does this change – namely Mr. Davutoglu’s resignation- casts doubts over the future of the refugee deal between EU and Turkey, as the former Prime Minister was that one who signed the deal from the Turkish side?
KP: I believe that there are many reasons to doubt the future of the deal, but as there is one leadership in Turkey, I think it is clear that the refugee deal would not have been possible without the support of President Erdogan. Hence, I don’t think that we have a deal which does not have the support of President Erdogan. Therefore, in that regard, I don’t see that there is a risk because Mr. Davutoglu is no longer Prime Minister, as the package was certainly approved by the President himself as well, otherwise it would have been no agreement with the EU.
Of course, there are many other elements which should be taken into consideration, such as the visa liberalization, which I think is the most important benefit for Turkey, and for its citizens directly. This issue is highly debated and it is not even sure that there will be a visa deal if Turkey continues to refuse to fulfill all the 72 criteria, and specifically to change its anti-terrorism legislation. In this regard, we do not think that Turkey does not have the right to fight terrorism, we just think that journalists, activists, academics should not be in jail because of anti-terrorism legislation.
Another important element about the refugee deal is represented by the judgment in Greece. For instance, if a Greek judge decides that is not safe, for specific Syrians, to be returned to Turkey and if this is going to be the general assessment of the Greek judges-that Turkey is not a safe third country to return refugees to- then, of course, the whole basis of the deal is jeopardized. Therefore, we see several aspects regarding the implementation of the deal.
Let’s be honest: I think that Turkey has very much delivered and the EU has failed to deliver, for several reasons: for visa liberalization, we failed to deliver because we think that Turkey does not fulfill the criteria; but we failed to deliver large scale resettlements of the refugees from Turkey, because there is simply no political will in the EU to agree over this issue. I can understand also why Turkey is getting a bit anxious: What we do get back for this deal? ; all the money is not going to the government, is going to NGOs, and this is something that is not so interesting for the Turkish government, for the Turkish people, so I understand also the anxiousness also from the Turkish side. Hence, I think that the deal depends very much on whether the EU will deliver or not the large scale re-settlements.
VE: What have really happened between Ankara and Brussels that visa-free regime with Turkey seems now if not impossible, at least very difficult to be implemented? What are the main elements which have led to this situation?
KP: There is one main element: the disagreement over the anti-terrorism legislation. We have free visa not only for associated countries, for candidate countries, for countries of the other side of the world, and there is a majority in the European Parliament which wants free visa for Turkish citizens too. Hence, it is not a principle stand that Turkish people should not have free visa for EU, as also it is not a principle stand that people from the Muslim countries should not have it.
At the same time, we will not lower our standards only because the free-visa issue has become part of the whole package of the EU-Turkey deal. I do not like that the opening of chapters, in the accession process, was linked with the refugee deal because I do not believe that is related. And I think that neither the majority in the European Parliament does think is related; we cannot say “Turkey will become quicker an EU member because we have a problem with the refugees”. So, talking, dialogue, visa liberalization- is all fine, but not if we lower our standards. Taking this position on one hand and Turkey publicly and straightforwardly saying “We did a lot, but one thing we are not going to do, namely to make any change to the anti-terrorism legislation”, on the other hand, just get us stuck in a complicated and difficult situation. Because we will say: “You fulfilled 71 out of 72 criteria” and Turkey will say “This one will not do”, so how to move from here?
There is a willingness from us to move and it is not that we are looking for ways to block visa liberalization. In Turkey, at this moment it is so popular to have an anti-EU speech just as it is very popular in Europe to have the anti-Turkey speech and we are stuck, which, of course, never leads to good outcomes. But I do not see the European Parliament moving on this. Finally, it is in the hands of the Turks to assess if it is really worth it not to change the anti-terrorism legislation and it looks that this stand is enhanced every day.
By lifting the immunity of more than 50 pro-Kurdish HDP deputies and if we would see, in the coming weeks, democratically elected legislators, for whom 5 million Turkish people voted, to be judged on basis of this law, this is nothing to do with fighting terrorism. It has to do with fighting those who are critical and to make sure that these voices are no longer heard. Imagine the case of Can Dundar, the journalist from Cumhuriyet, who was sentenced to 5 years and 10 months in prison: one of the cases against him was also based on anti- terrorism legislation; he did not get conviction based on this law, but it was one of the charges. Also, the case of the Dutch journalists, Frederike Geerdink- the reason of her first arrest was based on anti-terrorism law and there are many other examples in this regard.
With regard to the legislators, there are also charges of fraud, of corruption, but the question is which charges will be prosecuted? My worry is that only the legislators from the pro-Kurdish party will be prosecuted and there will not be prosecution for other deputies whose immunity was lifted. If now, democratically elected people -the HDP deputies-, who are fighting for the Kurdish cause in a democratic way, and not in the illegal way the PKK is doing, and who played a bridging function, the academics who launched the call for peace, the journalists who write about what is happening in the South East of Turkey, if you make all these people silent, if you silence them, this has nothing to do with fighting terrorism. Let’s be clear: the European Parliament does not think that the PKK should be taken off from the terrorist list but we do believe that is no military solution to this problem.
VE: In this regard, why do you think that Turkey sticks to this position, of not changing its definition of terrorism? Which is at the stake? Also, which impact the lifting of immunity of HDP lawmakers may have on EU-Turkey relations in general and Turkey’s accession process in particular?
KP: Firstly, it should be mentioned that unfortunately, Turkey is very vulnerable to terrorism if we look at its violent past or if we only look at the PKK: 40 000 people were killed. Also, look at the ISIS attacks, in the middle of the Ankara; terrorism is for many of us here in Europe mostly a theoretical issue, but for Turkish people is a matter of daily life and, unfortunately, a very sad reality. Turkey does not have the luxury, as Holland has it, to have a neighbor as Germany: Turkey has as neighbor Syria, and look at the complete lawlessness there. Turkey is in a difficult neighborhood, indeed. There is a big and substantial threat for Turkey.
Therefore, many Turkish people perceive terrorism like a real threat and they expect the government to be tough on everything that is related to terrorism. Though, I think most people in Turkey do not even know what is really going on in the South East, as also most people in Europe do not know, as there is no more news coming out of it. Though, the Turkish people know that PKK has restarted to perpetrate the attack, they see that many soldiers have died since the fighting restarted, a year ago, they see the funerals; and a lot of them have family members in the Army.
Hence, in the Turkish society, the sentiment, which is also coming from the past, is very much that Europe does not understand what terrorism is. This is what I have been constantly hearing and I think that in this regard, Turkey does have a point: that it has a much more significant bloody track record on terrorism than many countries in Europe have. In this respect, I think that it should be more understanding than it has been in the past.
The peace process collapsed and unfortunately the violence is there every day, which makes every human being very sad about what is happening in one of our neighboring countries. Nevertheless, the questions are arising: Where are the limits? Where are the boundaries? In this conflict, there are two sides, but I think that the Turkish government reaction is becoming disproportionate. There are different ways of dealing with terrorism, of fighting terrorism, but putting journalists, academics, Kurdish lawmakers -and they are not even Kurds, they are Turks- in jail, is not the solution.
When the measures against the Gulen movement started to be taken, many people thought, at that time, that this is a strange organization, which they did not want to be associated with; after that, the peace process collapsed. The funny thing is that while we know that Gulenists are absolutely not the biggest democracy promoters, for the first time, people from the Gulen movement, are saying me that they have started to appreciate the importance of the rule of law because of what had happened to them: if you are not fair with one group, no one in society is fair.
The only protection of being yourself is actually if there is some type of rule of law. I remember in December, when there was the arrest from Cumhuriyet, for the first time, we saw these people, who had hated each other before, but who were, at the same time, under attack from the government, to come together. For instance, Zaman opened a Kurdish language newspaper, while before the last thing one should had talked about to Zaman’s people was the peace process. People were brought together by seeing that if there is no freedom for one group, there is no freedom for anyone and I think that this is the sad lesson. Just like in the past, when there was no freedom for AKP, when they were forbidden and persecuted, when there was no voice for the Islamists, this, in the end, is never a good strategy. And how the same people, who did experience this in the past, come out with such measures?
Pulling HDP out of politics will never bring more security and stability to Turkey than if you enter the dialogue, if you allow people, even if you do not agree with them, to express their opinions in the political arena, as long as they do not incite to violence. Having this sort of society, is what we all had hoped for. In the past, there were positive signals: the government, under Mr. Erdogan’s mandate, started the peace process, which many seen as impossible. I think we should have praised and encouraged it much more: we, in the Parliament, did recognize it as a positive point but, unfortunately, look where we are now.
With regard to the lifting of immunity of HDP lawmakers: the way it was done was unconstitutional. Also, if it would lead to the fact that democratically elected deputies will end up in prison, this is definitely something that would not improve Turkey’s relationship with EU.
VE: How do you see the current economic atmosphere in Turkey, as there are rumors that large numbers of business people are fleeing Turkey due to the increasing political pressure?
KP: Turkey is a huge economy and it would be very bad for Europe if it would be any collapse of the Turkish economy. Also, Turkey is very dependent on the EU market, as the EU is its first trade partner, and the economic relation has been enhancing after the problems with Russia, and the problems with other neighbours. Regarding those stories of businessmen who are leaving Turkey, I think that they are those who are or who have been accused of being part of the Gulen group.
And as now for Turkish government there is the tendency to see the Gulen group as a terrorist group and given the type of the anti-terrorism legislation, people do not want to end up in jail. I have also heard some rumours, but I do not have facts, about these business leaders, who are not asking for asylum; they are going to spend a period of time in another country and they normally have enough money to take care of themselves in that way. I can imagine that if the instability would continue, if the political situation in the country, and especially if the rule of law continues to further deteriorate, this means also bad news for business in general and for the economic stability. The rule of law and economy cannot not been seen separately.
VE: For years, the process of Turkey’s accession process, especially the conditionality, was seen as strength by the EU but the last years’ deadlock shows that it might be a constraint too. Do you think that EU should redefine its relation with Turkey beyond the enlargement process?
KP: There are different issues here: in general, the transformative power that Europe had when it came to previous enlargements, it is clearly recognizable, although there are problems in some countries: Hungary, Poland, for instance. In general, EU has had a huge transformative power in those years, in accession negotiations process. Though, looking at the developments in the Balkans, in Turkey, in those countries which are negotiating the accession or which are theoretically candidate countries, it is a different issue, not only regarding Turkey, but regarding the Balkans too.
The EU is perhaps less attractive, for many countries, than it was 10-15 years ago, it has lost part of its attraction. But on the other hand, the Turkey’s enlargement was always a special case because immediately after we opened the accession, we immediately blocked it. Therefore, EU’s transformative power, which could have been there in theory, it was, from the beginning, not used in the way it could have been. This is, in my opinion, another criticism over how EU can only blame itself, in a way.
- Kati Piri (born 8 April 1979) is a Hungarian-born Dutch politician, she has been a member of the European Parliament representing the Netherlands since July 2014.