Analysis: Europe warns Turkey

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Saturday 18 Dec 2021

The Council of Europe’s warning to Turkey over human rights violations is part of complex calculations regarding the relations between Europe and Turkey.

Europe warns Turkey
Protesters hold placards during a demonstration of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey against the government in Istanbul (photo: AFP)

On 3 December, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers notified Turkey that it would start infringement proceedings over the country’s failure to comply with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) order to free human rights activist Osman Kavala.

In their next meeting on 2 February 2022, after a last consultation with the ECHR, the Committee may proceed with measures that could include suspending Turkey’s voting rights or its membership of the Council of Europe. It has given Turkey up to 19 January 2022 to respond.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded more quickly than that in his idiosyncratic way to the Council of Europe warning. “In our eyes, these [ECHR] rulings are null and void. We have explained it over and over again. They may understand it or not. We don’t recognise European Union decisions over the ones handed down by our judiciary,” he said.

Turkish commentator Zülfikar Doğan writing in the Turkish newspaper Ahval pointed out how radically Erdogan’s comment deviates from a long tradition of Turkish political thinking, which committed to abide by the rulings of the ECHR when Turkey first started its accession talks with the EU.

His position also deviates from Turkish law. Under Article 90 of the Turkish Constitution, ECHR rulings are binding on Turkey. The article states that international agreements ratified by Turkey have the force of law and that they cannot be challenged in the Constitutional Court on the grounds that they are unconstitutional.

The article adds that should there be a conflict between the provisions of international agreements ratified by Turkey concerning fundamental rights and freedoms and the provisions of domestic laws, “the provisions of international agreements shall prevail.”

While some commentators say Erdogan is merely being consistent with his general disdain for the rule of law, others believe his “defiance” of the Council of Europe is being staged for the forthcoming elections in Turkey. He might also be gambling on the possibility that the Council of Europe ministers are not as united in their resolve to sanction Ankara as they may appear.

Some commentators have wondered how far Erdogan might take his brinksmanship. In other areas where he had earlier followed a more aggressive foreign policy, he is now being more cautious. A case in point is the Eastern Mediterranean, where Erdogan launched his so-called Mavi Vatan (Blue Homeland) doctrine, an irredentist project focused on reviving the maritime power of the former Ottoman Empire.

But instead of provocatively sending warships into Greek and Cypriot territorial waters, Erdogan has been exercising uncharacteristic restraint, even if he gives his spokesmen leave to utter veiled threats. His eyes are on Washington, which last week approved the sale of four new Multi-Mission Surface Combatant (MMSC) warships made by Lockheed Martin to Greece at an estimated cost of $6.9 billion. The US has also agreed to upgrade the Greek Navy’s four German-built MEKO frigates, which will cost Athens $2.5 billion.

The US state department explained that the sales were intended to help Greece “to meet current and future threats by providing an effective combatant deterrent capability to protect maritime interests and infrastructure in support of its strategic location on NATO’s southern flank.”

France has also been helping Greece upgrade its military capacities. On 28 September, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that Athens had made a deal with France to buy three heavily armed Belharra class frigates as part of a deeper “strategic partnership” between the two countries to defend their shared interests in the Mediterranean.

Describing these developments as “unproductive,” Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Tanju Bilgiç said they “will only strengthen our determination to protect our rights and the rights of the Republic of Northern Cyprus in the Aegean and Mediterranean.”

However, in fact Turkey’s hands are tied in the face of a rush of regional developments and desperate economic straits at home. Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar might claim that “the balance of forces in the region will not change with a handful of used planes,” referring to the 24 advanced Dassault Rafale fighter jets Greece also bought from France, but this omits mention of the huge problems in Turkey’s efforts to upgrade its own airforce thanks to Erdogan’s insistence on purchasing the Russian S-400 missile system.

These things spoke for themselves when Erdogan remained mute when Nicosia awarded a licence to Exxon Mobil and Qatar Petroleum to drill for oil and gas in Cypriot waters in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey claims that part of the field in question violates its continental shelf. While Erdogan may be upset that Turkey’s “good friend and brother” Qatar is a partner in the licencing agreement, he cannot afford to alienate Doha at a time when his country’s economic straits are narrowing.

While the Europeans have multiple concerns over the state of human rights and the rule of law in Turkey, they are also nervous about the question of immigration and refugees, especially after the recent trouble along the border with Belarus. In the opinion of many quarters in Europe, some regimes on Europe’s doorstep use refugees as a weapon in a covert war and as pawns on a geopolitical chessboard.

Belarus has faced this charge, but the glare has also fallen on Turkey. In 2015, Ankara signed an agreement to shelter refugees from war-torn Syria and prevent them from entering Europe in exchange for a 3 billion euros package. Then, in February 2020, Erdogan threatened to let thousands of refugees pour into Europe in what was described as an act of political blackmail.

Many predict that Erdogan will resort to this threat again if the Council of Europe contemplates suspending Turkey’s membership. But the Committee of Ministers will be weighing other factors as well.

Turkish-European relations are complex and are characterised by an array of shared concerns and interwoven interests. Analysts foresee behind-the-scenes pressures to keep the ministers from adopting punitive measures that could push Ankara to desperate measures. Many advise keeping their fingers crossed for the Turkish elections in June 2023 at the latest in the hope that these will usher in a post-Erdogan era in Turkey and a healthier climate all around.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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