Positive reset of EU-Turkey agenda not possible without concrete reforms – Kati Piri

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has spoken about his desire to turn over a new leaf with Europe, but that might not happen without repairing the damage he has done to Turkish democracy. 

Ankara faces a tall order in its aspirations for new page in EU relations, according to Kati Piri, a member of the European Parliament from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

“I do not understand how Ankara thinks it will reset the agenda with the European Union,” Piri tol Ahval in a podcast interview. “They know what they have to do in order to reset relations, but I haven’t seen any of that seriously examined in Turkey.”

Last November was when Erdogan first showed any openness to improving relations with the European Union, stating, “We see ourselves nowhere else but in Europe.”

In a phone call with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Jan. 10, the pair discussed improving relations in what the EU president called a “good exchange.” Among the topics covered, according to readout from Erdoğan’s office, was a discussion on how to move forward on Turkey’s stalled bid to join the bloc. 

Behind any negotiations about improving relations are deep disagreements over the state of Turkish democracy after two decades under Erdoğan.

In December, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Turkey must release prominent Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas from custody over what it considered politically-motivated terrorism charges. A year earlier, the ECHR also ordered the release of civil society activist Osman Kavala from custody on similar grounds, but Erdoğan has refused in both cases to respect either ruling. 

Piri, now S&D’s vice president for foreign affairs, has been an outspoken critic of the authoritarian nature of the Erdoğan government for years. Previously, Piri was the Turkey rapporteur of the European Parliament, where she spoke out against Erdoğan’s consolidation of power and other actions including his military operations in Syria. She has called for the EU to speak to Turkey in a clear language that discourages its anti-democratic tendencies.

Last week, Piri her colleagues in drafting an open letter to the delegations of the EU to the Council of Europe (CoE), which oversees the ECHR. The letter called on the body to “do everything within your power” to ensure Ankara complies with the court’s decisions demanding the release of Kavala and Demirtaş. 

As a member of the CoE, Turkey falls under the ECHR’s jurisdiction, but it has rejected the court’s orders in defiance of it. Asked about what consequences Turkey should face for its refusal to abide by these rulings, Piri says that “everything is on the table” and that pushing for Turkish compliance should be at the top of the European agenda.  

“What I am expecting is to have a united public voice from the European Union expressing that Turkey must abide by this ruling,” she said. “From there on, you can look at various options on the CoE, that the EU has in order to make sure Turkey also feels the pain if it does not apply the international obligations it signed up to.”

This may not bode well for Erdoğan’s hopes to gloss over disagreements with the EU and insist on his plans to pursue a reform agenda at home that will improve both the Turkish judiciary and the economy. Adding to his list of promises, Erdoğan earlier this month declared that Turkey was ready to draft a new constitution ostensibly to replace the military imposed one of 1982 that followed the coup that year. 

Piri brushed off Erdoğan’s declarations as “empty words” that the EU should not believe until it sees the results. 

“There will not be any positive reset of the agenda if we do not see any positive reforms,” said Piri. 

 However, Piri insists that the EU has not always been the strongest advocate for its own values in its interactions with Turkey or other neighbouring undemocratic regimes like Belarus or Russia. Part of this failure to live up to its values she blames on the transactional mindset of some E.U members, particularly Germany under Chancellor Angela Merkel. Piri said this approach eschews human rights advocacy in favour of pure realpolitik. 

On this front, she was heartened by statements from the United States State Department that called for the release of Osman Kavala. The new administration of President Joe Biden has promised to fuse human rights into its worldwide agenda, and it ends years of U.S silence on Turkey’s democratic backsliding. With this, Piri hopes the United States can lend its voice together with the EU to speak out against Erdoğan’s excesses.  

“Obviously my hope is that we have a joint voice and not send mixed messages, and put human rights on top of that agenda,” she said. 

Even as the disagreements persist, Piri believes that more needs to be done to improve the state of civil society in Turkey. Ideally, she would like to see the EU and the United States avoid relying on punitive measures like sanctions to inspire change and find more ways to empower Turks themselves to pursue a more democratic future. 

One point Piri felt important to emphasise was that these Turks know their plight is not forgotten. She promises to continue fighting for human rights to be included on a European agenda towards Turkey to change its course.

“Many people always say do words matter? Yes words matter, words matter a lot,” said Piri.  

“The moment Europe stops speaking about human rights in Turkey, that’s the moment Europe gave up on the direction the country is heading in.”