‘Progress Report’ doomed to be rejected, the EU is at historic watershed on Turkey

If reported accurately, the European Commission will on Wednesday issue its annual so-called ‘Progress Report’ on Turkey, a ‘report card’ of sorts outlining whether or not its performance is in line with the membership criteria.

The apparent reversal of democratisation that began to be noted since early 2014, which accelerated in the past year, and reached a peak in the aftermath of the coup attempt in July 15 raised so many doubts about the very process that the cynics call it ‘Regress Report’ these days.

Squeezed tightly because of the refugee crisis and the deal that was cut between Ankara and Brussels, the fate of this year’s report, despite the fact that it may have been ‘watered down’ in the content, is unclear.

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported on Sunday, based on a draft, that “a significant relapse” in press freedom was noted and legal decisions over national security and the fight against terrorism were applied “selectively and randomly.”

Report also cited significant concerns about the many Turkish journalists who have been arrested and media outlets that have been shut down since the failed July 15 coup. The European Commission report also says there has been a relapse in the independence of the judiciary, noting that one fifth of judges and prosecutors had been dismissed after the attempted putsch, the paper said.

Report underlined some of those arrested had been held for up to 30 days before being brought before a judge during the state of emergency imposed after the failed coup. The report also raises “very serious questions” about the Turkish government’s collective actions against people suspected of ties to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused of instigating the coup attempt, according to Reuters, that cites the German newspaper.

The ‘decree regime’, implemented as a consequence by the Emergency Rule, announced July 21, has in practice suspended the rule of law. Defying most recently a unanimous call bye the European Parliament to release all jailed journalists, more than a week ago, Turkish government continued the ‘business as usual’, by shutting down 15 Kurdish media outlets, cancelled 776 press cards, jailed not only nine journalists from independent daily, Cumhuriyet, but also detained nine elected deputies of the pro-Kurdish HDP, the third largest party in Parliament. A trustee is expected to be appointed over Cumhuriyet – which means a seizure – as the HDP decided to fully boycott Parliament.


The crisis is swiftly deepening, and puts, inevitably, the EU at a historically critical crossroads.

Marietje Schaake, an MEP, said, following the detention of the HDP deputies:

“The EU has been ‘following’ the situation in Turkey for months. By now, President Erdogan knows condemnations will not lead to actions. What happened in Turkey this morning can be added to a long list of events in which the Turkish authorities have failed to respect the rule of law and democratic principles, human rights and press freedoms. Earlier this week, staff members from Cumhuriyet newspaper were detained. It is time the EU attaches consequences to these developments, for example through stopping to pretend the statement on migration leads to positive changes. Additionally a freezing of accession talks until meaningful benchmarks towards respect for the rule of law are met, should be on the table.”

To continue or not to continue with membership process, is the key question, that preoccupies the EU leaders profoundly.

This is a moment, when divorce is on the agenda, as a serious option.

Germany already sent out signals that the current reversal towards authoritarianism is unacceptable from the European point of view. Manfred Weber, leader of the CSU and EPP, called for an immediate suspension of accession talks, as Kati Piri, Turkey repporteur of the EP, had already done.

Question is what to be done.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, said on Monday that the Turkish government’s handling of dismissed civil servants reminded him of methods used by the Nazis, and that, sooner or later, the EU would have to respond with sanctions.

The names of those who are barred from public service are published in the official government gazette, potentially making it hard for them to find work elsewhere. In addition, their passports are canceled, Reuters reported.

Asselborn said people were also being stripped of their university degrees, and that many were being left with no income. Some dismissed teachers who were sole breadwinners have complained of being unable to feed their families.

“To put it bluntly, these are methods that were used during the Nazi era and that’s a really, really bad development … that the European Union simply cannot accept,” Asselborn said. He suggested imposing economic sanctions, pointing out that 50 percent of Turkey’s exports go to the EU and 60 percent of investment in Turkey comes from the bloc.

The issue is, that President Erdoğan and his cabinet remains fully defiant of the calls coming from the EU.

The AKP Gov’t had rejected the Progress Report last year, calling it ‘null and void’, sending it back. Given the circumstances, no matter how cautiously written, this year’s report is most likely to be refused, ridiculed and treated as a ‘return to sender’.

Another possibility, therefore, is that the Commission shelves it temporarily, to avoid further escalation, and eventual lockdown, until the issues ‘for a last time’ is discussed between the EU and the Turkish Gov’t.

Bridges are all set, to be burned; and there a very few leverages to avoid that, it seems.

Let’s see how Turkey in general skidded away from the closely watched, highly regarded ‘normalisation’ process that marked the first years of the AKP, towards a sheer ‘power grab’ situation, demolishing all the democratic gains one after another, returning to its oppressive, intolerant factory settings.

What has happened?

As a reminder, I have the following recap to offer:

Applying all means of political engineering, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have set the final stage of the governing change that has left the country sharply polarised and anxious.

He is closer than ever to a constitutional referendum that could grant him full-scale empowerment — an omnipotent presidency — to rule the country.

It is, no doubt, an exercise that will have vast consequences in the region, in the global scheme of alliances and be a costly gamble for the future of Turkey.

The systemic change has been on the agenda for years but delayed because of the routine turbulence of Turkish politics. The shift to presidential rule was fiercely debated, with US and French models, and was always placed at the heart of broader constitutional reform that, reformists agreed, was an abso­lute necessity for the country. Turkey has been in turmoil because of military tutelage and unresolved issues of collective rights and freedoms of ethnic and religious identities, such as the Kurds and Alevis.

Erdogan decisively steered the country to an authoritarian-majoritarian direction since the Gezi Park protests in 2013.

Attempts to establish peace with the Kurdish political move­ment — the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its political wing, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) — did not last long. Revising sharply his political road map for absolute power, Erdogan in the summer of 2015 headed towards establishing a full-scale conserva­tive-nationalist alliance.

He cunningly manoeuvred towards the elements of the army (the militarist Kemalist flank that favours Russia before NATO), assembled circles of the establish­ment concerned about a Kurdish belt alongside Turkey’s borders with Iraq and Syria and appeased the grass roots of the ultranation­alist opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) through expansionist-revanchist rhetoric against the West.

Erdogan’s hard-line policies, which were played out in scorched-earth moves in the mainly Kurdish provinces, paid back well. On top of that, July’s botched coup cemented the foundation of his popularity, as the MHP, fearing implosion and in general content with the politics of fear, found itself as a de facto ally of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The road to absolute power is not an easy one, however. Erdogan and the AKP he tightly controls lack the seats to take the issue to referendum. In parlia­ment, which has 550 seats, he needs 330 votes to do so. The AKP falls short by 14, which, due to the resistance of the other opposition parties, Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and pro- Kurdish HDP, makes him depend­ent on the MHP, which has 40 deputies.

The next parliamentary and presidential elections are sched­uled for 2019. Here Erdogan plays his cards masterfully on several fronts.

Utilising the failed coup as “God’s gift”, as he expressed it, he now rules the country by decree, eradicating civilian opposition by sheer force, tarnishing what remains of the rule of law.

His destruction of critical media is almost complete, with the massive raid on Turkey’s oldest, independent journalism institu­tion, Cumhuriyet. The number of jailed journalists approaches 150, shuttered media outlets more than 180. This means a total lack of proper, diverse public debate and opens the path to unchal­lenged political victory.

Erdogan knows that he also has the main opposition CHP in his hand. Stuck in an ideological impasse that prevents it from forging a leftist opposition bloc with HDP, the third largest group in parliament, CHP remains in limbo. Its leader, Kemal Kilicdaro­glu, has time after time proven far too weak in his oratorical and strategic skills to challenge Erdogan.

This leaves HDP, which is the only voice of political resistance, very vulnerable and Erdogan keeps tightening the screws on the HDP. Its elected mayors in Kurdish provinces, one after another, have been arrested, municipalities seized and given to the government-appointed trustees.

Services in those settlements have been halted as the internet, telephone lines and garbage collecting have ceased to operate for days, paralysing daily life. The aim seems to be to turn the Kurdish voters against the HDP, which they solidly supported in the past.

Erdogan also squeezed the nationalist MHP into a corner. He knows that its leader, Devlet Bahceli, fears an early election, because the party has lost voters to the AKP. Therefore, he pushes for a vote in parliament, paving the way to a referendum, possibly next April or May.

Bahceli, a fierce opponent of the Kurdish demands for recognition and representation, seeks three things in return:

That the new constitution preserves the unitary nature of the state, not give in to any demands for recognition of identities other than Turkish and that the death penalty will be reintroduced.

All signs are that Erdogan will have no objections to them as long as his dream comes true. His hope is that a referendum will end with a yes victory assembling AKP and MHP voters, which make up about 60-65% of the electorate.

That is the plan but there are major problems possible. Such a result would mean insufficient consensus necessary for making a major change.

Also, if it comes escorted by the death penalty, Turkey can wave goodbye to its aspirations for a closer alliance with Western institutions, setting sail in full force towards the Central Asian sphere.

Where we ended up, in the enormous turmoil, caused by a wild sweep of dissidents, and a massive purge of state institutions, and a collapse of the separation of powers, brings to question whether Turkey any longer ‘sufficiently meet the Copenhagen Criteria’, necessary as a ground for continued talks for membership.

Umut Özkırımlı, a Turkish political scientist with the University of Lund had this grim analysis to offer, most recently to Danish TV:

  • Turkey is no longer a democracy, even in the procedural sense of the term, or a competitive authoritarian system, as there is no competition whatsoever. It is simply a 21st century dictatorship, à la Putin’s Russia or several Middle Eastern regimes.
  • It is a “popularly supported dictatorship”, like the fascist regimes of the interwar period. Erdogan does enjoy significant electoral support, the irregularities of the electoral process notwithstanding. Hence…
  • What we witness is more a “moral crisis” than a political one. The society at large is not disturbed by the stifling of dissent or the clampdown on the Kurds. If anything, they want more! (Remember the crowds booing the “victims” of Ankara bombings in a national soccer game simply because they were Kurds and/or belonged to leftist organizations).
  • As argued in the forthcoming book, “Models Unveiled: Sweden and Turkey as Local Instantiations of a Global Crisis” (co-authored with Henrik Berggren Spyros Sofos and Lars Trägårdh), the moral crisis is not peculiar to Turkey, but a global one. Europe is suffering from it, the US is suffering from it, so there is no point in pondering over what “the West/Europe should do”. It is a total waste of time.

It is the absence of the rule of law, which constitutes the basis of all critical analysis by those who argue that Turkey swayed far away from its democratic fundaments.

In an October 25 interview in Prague with RFE/RL, Mark L. Wolf – who is a senior U.S. federal judge who went to Turkey in 2012 to help train the country’s prosecutors and judges to be more independent and more impartial – offered following comments:

  •  Even before the coup [eds. attempt] in July, the judiciary was being essentially taken over by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.When the attempted coup occurred in July, within 24 hours there were arrest warrants for almost 3,000 judges. And it’s very clear, and in fact it’s been admitted by the deputy chair of the High Council [of Judges and Prosecutors, the body that selects and assigns judges], that that list of judges had existed for years. That list wasn’t prepared in the hours following the coup, but the coup provided an opportunity — perhaps a pretext — to not just demote people who might stand up for the rule of law, but to lock them up.
  • There has been no specific charge against any judge who’s being detained, no judicial proceeding that I know of — although there are some judges who have been released from detention, but no judicial proceeding –and it’s not possible to imagine right now that there could be a fair proceeding.
  • There’ve been some special courts set up to handle the detention cases, but it’s impossible to imagine that any judge in Turkey would fairly preside in a case and decide that the defendant, the person being charged, was not guilty of being linked to this [alleged] terrorist organization associated with Gulen, because it’s foreseeable that judge would then get locked up. And, indeed, there are reports of judges crying as they have detained their former colleagues, knowing that it’s unjust but also knowing that if they didn’t order the detention they would be the next in line to go to jail.
  • Turkey does not have a wonderful history of an independent judiciary and honest prosecutions, but it did — in 2012 and 2013 at least — have a group of people who were trying to establish an honest, impartial, independent judiciary and prosecutors as well. And now that effort has been frustrated, it was being frustrated, the effort was being suppressed before the coup attempt and that effort has accelerated and has received momentum since the coup attempt.
  • Turkey is an important barrier to refugees overwhelming Europe and I think these countervailing considerations have caused the United States and its European allies to be mute or much less emphatic about the importance of observing the rule of law in Turkey.
  • In my view — well, this is a difficult dilemma for somebody in the [U.S.] executive branch — the president [Barack Obama] and those who work with him. It’s short-sighted. Turkey is a NATO ally, the NATO alliance is intended to be made up of democracies and I think if Turkey does not observe the rule of law it will not be a reliable or ultimately valuable partner to the United States and its NATO allies.
  • So, the situation in Turkey has created difficult challenges for the United States and its allies, but I think if we’re not more energetic in advocating for the rule of law it will be shameful, we would have allowed honest judges, prosecutors, and others to be detained and have their families and their lives destroyed. And, ultimately, we would not have a faithful ally.

The rejection of the Progress Report once more a certainty, and an impasse in the dialogue a bitter fact, the question is, what to do?

In another analysis, posted by Vocal Europe, scholars Bilge Yabancı and Kerem Öktem argues that ‘there are three options for the EU to dissuade the government from harassing the opposition and dissidents and to restore at least some basic level of rule of law’:

  • The EU can use the economic trade card – ‘sanctions’
  • It can suspend negotiations indefinitely until the government restores the principles of the rule of law and basic freedoms
  • it can issue a Plan B that suspends the EU- Turkey refugee deal, which anyway has severe legal, humanitarian and practical deficits.

My view?

It’s this:

With 142 journalists in jail, a world record, you can no longer speak about democracy in a country. This sheer fact alone makes the negotiations a parody in itself.

The current situation is unsustainable. It is very clear that the ‘politics of thuggery’ favoured by the populist Erdoğan – not to mention the Hungarian and Polish governments – not only signify a undemocratic defiance against the European values, but also a clear intent to subvert them.

I am not so sure about the ‘sanctions’ proposal by Yabancı/Öktem; it is premature, as long as some tiny doors of opportunity are open.

But, as a staunch proponent over years and years of for keeping the talks on track, I believe that a temporary suspension of the talks are justified for serious discussion, simply because all else is now exhausted, and the power in Ankara has been seized by a primitive, majoritarian political culture which constantşy feeds on humiliation and rejection of the democratic values; understands the negotiation process as banal, one way, horse trading.

The third proposal is absolutely timely.

As Schaake said recently:

‘As a result of this murky migration deal, which was never public or subject to a vote by the European Parliament, Turkey can blackmail Europe. The EU’s foreign policy has become a lame duck when leaders fail to react to events unfolding, out of fear of more asylum seekers being sent to Europe.”

The refugee deal was deeply myopic, miscalculated, flawed in construction and strategy. It placed Turkey’s democratic opposition, seen not as a legitimate rival, but ‘enemies of the state’ by Erdoğan, as hostages to be bargained on. The blockage of refugees was translated by the AKP, as a carte blanche for harrassment and eradication of dissent. It has also, just because of the carte blanche for oppression, diminished all options for a visa liberalisation: because it has turned Turkey, as of now, a country part of whose population set to abandon it, in a mass exodus.

Plan B should be considered. If the EU tears down the deal, it could spend all the money to engage many more patrol boats in the Aegean, increase border controls through Bulgaria and Greece; and investing heavily on safe zones near the Balkans.

Turkey needs the EU much more than the vice versa.

The AKP government should be made to understand that.


About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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