Yurttagül adds that many observers of Turkey in Europe are very concerned because they do not know where Turkey is headed.
One of those concerned people is German President Joachim Gauck, who, during his official visit to Turkey last week, told a group of students at Middle Eastern Technical University (ODTÜ) in Ankara, “I should confess, developments in Turkey horrify me.”
The German president was critical of the Turkish government for censoring the Internet, controlling the judiciary and granting wide powers to the nation’s spy agency. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reprimanded the German president and said that he had intervened in Turkey’s internal affairs during his “bizarre” speech.
Yurttagül says that Turkey-EU relations are very tense:
“Erdoğan has given up on Turkey’s EU aspirations. All decisions are very centralized in the government.”
Answering our questions he elaborates on the issue.
First of all, I’d like to ask you a rather classic question since you are coming from a European institution. How does Turkey look from there?
I can say that the groups that have been supporting Turkey’s accession to the EU have been watching the developments in Turkey with great concern because they cannot see where Turkey is going, especially over the last two years. They are having a hard time understanding some of the practices in Turkey, like the bans on Twitter and YouTube and laws interfering with the judiciary’s independence and individual freedoms — the latest of those being the National Intelligence Organization [MİT]. The new law on MİT opens the door to abuse as it greatly increases the intelligence agency’s surveillance powers while threatening journalists who expose its abuses with prison terms. So, the question is where Turkey is heading. In an authoritarian regime or in the opposite direction? I have watched famous addresses by Erdoğan, known as his “balcony speeches,” and there is a clear difference of style and substance between the one made after his party’s June 12, 2011 election victory and the other one made after March 30, 2014. Many observers of Turkey — academics, politicians, etc. — are very concerned since they do not know where Turkey is headed.
Are there efforts to understand what is happening in Turkey? Is there dialogue between Turkish and European Union officials?
Dialogue! This is a good question because before the Helsinki Summit, I called the relations between Turkey and the EU a ‘European-Turkey monologue,’ but after the summit, it became a dialogue. In August 2002, Turkey got rid of capital punishment, and this was a result of the dialogue with the EU — it was a very important step. After that, no law in Turkey was passed before being engaged in dialogue with Strasbourg and Brussels. However, in the last one-and-a-half years, Turkey has not bothered to ask or consult with EU institutions before making important decisions and passing laws. It seems that a narrow clique within the Justice and Development Party [AK Party or AKP] is deciding to pass laws, and they are passed with the support of the deputies; even the Cabinet ministers sometimes are not aware what laws are passed. We do not exactly know who makes up this clique, but we know that they do not care about the EU.
Turkey drives away from Copenhagen criteria
Now observers are even arguing that Turkey will face some sort of sanctions by the EU as a result of the path Ankara is following. Is that possible?
Yes, this has been debated in the EU, too. Some European deputies have even said that Turkey’s membership negotiations should be suspended. This debate is based on some facts. When we look at the past three laws [passed] in Turkey — the law on the HSYK [the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors law represents a major step back from a government-proposed constitutional referendum in 2010 that brought a more democratic and pluralistic structure to the HSYK], the Internet law and the MİT law, which was on the agenda of the Parliament at the time [when it was discussed in Europe] — it is clear that Ankara is not producing laws compatible with EU norms anymore and that it is suspending the rule of law in Turkey. Plus, Ankara is not combating corruption. On the contrary, Ankara is relocating or reassigning policemen and prosecutors who investigated large scale corruption allegations against the government. As a result, Turkey is driving away from the Copenhagen criteria.
What is the approach of the Green Group in the European Parliament to the calls of suspension of accession negotiations of Turkey with the EU?
We did not support it. We believe that first Turkey’s institutions should be tested to see whether or not they are resisting anti-democratic practices of the government. For example, it was a welcome development that Turkey’s Constitutional Court partially annulled the law to restructure the HSYK. It shows that institutions are resisting anti-democratic developments. However, we have to watch and see whether or not these resisting institutions can survive despite the government’s decisions.
One other institution in this regard is the presidency, but it seems like President Abdullah Gül has no such resistance [to anti-democratic practices]…
Since we know that he respects EU institutions, we expected that he would resist, but he did not. Regarding the government’s Twitter ban and the related law, he gave some advice to change some articles, but the government did not listen to him.
When we go back to the issue of survival of the institutions despite the government, Turkey has a prime minister who blatantly says that he does not respect the decisions of the Constitutional Court.
If this goes on like that, there will not be seriousness to accession negotiations between Turkey and the EU. And we already see that close advisors of Prime Minister Erdoğan — like Yiğit Bulut — see no value in Turkey’s relations with the EU.
In the meantime, Turkey’s EU affairs minister was changed.
It’s been a positive change, because Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has shown that he is much closer to the EU’s values than Egemen Bağış. He is on duty in a very difficult time, especially after the Dec. 17 process. He is the right man there at the wrong time.
PM Erdoğan gives up on Turkey’s EU aspirations
Is this mostly because Erdoğan decides everything?
Yes. In addition, Turkey-EU relations are very tense, and Erdoğan has given up on Turkey’s EU aspirations. All decisions are very centralized in the government and we cannot even guess if [Deputy Prime Minister] Ali Babacan, a respected member of the government who has managed the Turkish economy well, still has a say in the government. And we cannot guess if the Central Bank of Turkey will be able to protect its independence, etc. Under normal circumstances, either Çavuşoğlu or Justice Minister [Bekir Bozdağ], if they had some political power, would have been able to prevent the passage of the HSYK law in Parliament because they know that the law would not be welcomed by EU institutions. The Turkish Parliament passes laws that brings Turkey’s image upside down. Why does it do it? We do not know exactly, but we can guess.
What do you understand from the government’s decisions?
The government is trying to cover up the corruption investigation. Its goal is to control the judiciary. It does not care how much damage Turkey suffers from those laws. Thus, government officials do not care about whether or not those laws conform to Turkey’s constitution or the EU norms. And this is what concerns Europe the most.
Were the results of the March 30 elections expected for the European observers of Turkey?
The AKP was expected to get fewer votes in the election. Indeed, when we compare the results of the most recent elections with the results of the 2011 election, there is a loss of 6 percent. Still, the AKP has successfully come out of the election.
Soon we will have elections for president, and Erdoğan is expected to be a candidate.
The new system will make the Turkish president very powerful. There are direct elections in Europe for president, and while the president is powerful in France, it is not in Austria. Therefore, the system of public voting for president does not necessarily lead to a powerful president. Other political parties will have candidates, too. But at the end, there will be two people left against each other. I do not think that Erdoğan has been well prepared for the final vote on the presidency because he has created much tension in society. This was especially blatant during the Gezi events, as he insulted environmentalists. And later, he also showed that he is not a good candidate for president because he said that he does not respect the decisions of the Constitutional Court.
‘Demonization of Gülen movement seen as attempt to cover up corruption probe’
Prime Minister Erdoğan ties of the country’s ill to a “parallel structure centered in Pennsylvania” — meaning to Fethullah Gülen. Is this a credible argument?
You ask this question to someone who has been writing articles for Zaman. People have asked me why I am writing for Zaman. I ask this question myself, too. Personally, I believe that the Gülen movement plays an important role in Turkey’s democratization process, as it provides channels of political participation for conservative Muslims from the heart of Anatolia. For me — a green liberal democrat — being able to write for this audience is a blessing. If I had written for the Radikal daily, I am not sure how influential my writings would be for an audience that has similar values to mine. When Zaman supported establishing nuclear power plants in Turkey, I was writing in Zaman against it. When it comes to how Europe sees Erdoğan’s claims and the demonization of the Gülen movement, European Commission officials clearly told Turkish officials, including Çavuşoğlu, that the AKP’s demonization of the Gülen movement seems like an effort by the ruling party to cover up the corruption investigation, because there is no other way to explain why prosecutors and police who have been investigating a major corruption [scandal] were removed. However, it seems like we have a monologue, as I said at the beginning of our talk. AKP officials say that the laws that were recently passed are not against the Turkish Constitution. On the other hand, we say that they go against the Turkish Constitution. Plus, [they go] against the Venice Commission decisions and the Copenhagen criteria. And right after the AKP officials’ assertions that those recent laws are fine, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Twitter ban was against the Constitution!
The AK Party might have given up on the EU. However, it is not only a political union; it is also an economic union which Turkey has serious ties with.
An influential group of people within the AKP, including Bulut, seems like they see no use to having even economic relations with the EU. On the other hand, people like Babacan see the big picture and value Turkey’s relations with the EU. How much longer can the AKP withstand this contradiction? We don’t know. We have to wait and see. Erdoğan is intelligent enough to see that the AKP’s success depends on a good economy. If he does not center his policies on well-developed relations with the EU, the Turkish economy might not do this well.
‘Kurdish issue in deep freeze’
It seems like Prime Minister Erdoğan has been still clinging to the so called “solution process” with the Kurds of Turkey. On the other hand, Kurdish intellectuals have been increasingly saying that the AK Party government cannot solve the problem, as freedoms have been progressively restricted in the country. Green politicians have always supported the Kurds and other oppressed groups in Turkey. What is your evaluation in this regard? Is Erdoğan serious in his efforts to solve the problem?
There have been important steps taken by the government in regards to solving the Kurdish issue — the use of mother tongue, opening a state TV channel in Kurdish, the AKP participating in dialogue with Abdullah Öcalan [head of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or the PKK], etc. The AKP seems to be in front of other parties in regards to its approach to the Kurdish issue. However, this is not the answer to your question. You ask: Is he serious? And that’s the dilemma. The “solution process” has been in the deep freeze for some time now. Before changing the pro-militarist 1982 Constitution of Turkey, it is not possible to have progress in solving the Kurdish issue. And the project to rewrite the Constitution is dead. Before redefining the meaning of citizenship, it is not possible to solve the Kurdish problem. In addition, the issue cannot be solved by handing the task of solving the issue to the intelligence service of Turkey [MİT]. Because it is not an intelligence issue, it is a political problem. At this point, it seems like attempts to solve the Kurdish problem were a clever maneuver of Erdoğan before the elections. And the reason for the Kurdish side to still be at the table is just because it does not want to be a spoilsport.
‘Turkey betting on wrong horse in Syria’
What is your opinion about the Syrian crisis and Turkey’s handling of it?
I’d like to be even-handed and say that many countries have been following unwise policies regarding Syria. Turkey is not the only country responsible from the developments in Syria, although it is one of those countries. I am from Hatay, so the developments in the region are dear to me. At the beginning of the crisis, Ankara followed the right approach. It tried to have dialogue with the Syrian leader, had efforts to be an intermediary, etc. Now there are several problems. The break-off in dialogue with the United States on the issue of Syria points to the fact that Turkey is betting on the wrong horse. Ankara and Washington seem not to be on the same path. In order to solve the Syrian problem, Turkey and the US need to be on the same page. There should have been continuing dialogue with the Syrian leader. In addition, Hatay is carrying a huge economic burden because of its proximity to Syria and the crisis. And voters punished the AKP for this by not electing its mayoral candidate, Sadullah Ergin there, even though he is a popular politician. Another burning issue is about what plans Ankara has for the Syrians who fled from Syria to Turkey. Turkey needs to integrate those people into the economy. Yes, Turkey has been quite welcoming and helpful for the Syrians, but it should take some more steps for the integration of these people.
‘I’m optimistic about future’
What plans do you have following your retirement from the EP? Are you going to live in Turkey? Joost Lagendijk recently wrote in his Today’s Zaman column, “We can only hope that his farewell is not a symbol of a general Turkish retreat from Europe.” What do you think of his comment?
Yes, it was a nice article of Joost on my 29 years of work at the European Parliament and my efforts on EU-Turkey relations. I think we have to listen to the real friends of Turkey like Joost or Mr. Gauck. They are very concerned and are asking questions on the main issues, like press freedom, the independence of the judiciary, combating corruption, etc. They’d like to see a well-dressed, democratic Turkey in the European Club. I’ve been fighting for it for years, and I’m optimistic. You see, the elections of 2002 were possible in this country. Similar changes are still possible.
PROFILE: Ali Yurttagül
Ali Yurttagül was an adviser for the European Greens-European Free Alliance in the European Parliament from 1985 — when EU-Turkey relations were not on the EU’s agenda — until April 2014. He is an expert who worked on the parliamentary committees on home affairs, justice and human rights. With the president of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, he worked on the committee for external affairs and coordinated efforts with the Turkish Parliament as well. He studied political science at Ankara University, and then at the Free University of Berlin. His work on European integration gave him the opportunity to further the development of EU-Turkey relations. His analyses on EU-Turkey relations and international policy have been published in Today’s Zaman and are respected by the Turkish public and European institutions.