The clear remarks by EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn came on April 26, just days after Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said Ankara would stop taking back migrants when asked what Turkey would do if the EU tried to delay the visa portion of a March accord which intended to stem illegal migration into Europe, mainly due to influxes triggered by the conflict in Syria.
“I think many of us are always clear that we are not satisfied with the current situation,” Hahn said, speaking with a group of journalists, when reminded of the apparent damage to the EU's image and credibility in Turkey because a considerable part of the society has been convinced that the EU has misused the priority of rights and freedoms in the name of finding a solution to the refugee crisis.
“Once again, the real litmus test for Turkey will be the accession negotiations. This is key and here we will see what the real aim of Turkey is. If the real aim is to become member, then of course rule of law is at top of the priorities. This is why nowadays, due to the energization of the accession process we applied, we would like to start as soon as possible with Chapter 23 [Judiciary and Fundamental Rights] and 24, and as we do nowadays with all the other accession countries, we will conclude our process by closing Chapters 23 and 24 [Justice, Freedom and Security]. So the final assessment by the European Commission will only be done if 23 and 24 is closed” Hahn said in the southeastern border province of Şanlıurfa during a visit to a refugee camp managed by Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) in Harran district.
“If there are developments which are not in line with our understanding of rule of law, no matter if it is a journalist, a judge or an academic, it is raised by us. I can only urge everybody, if there is a real will to cooperate with us, to understand that if cooperation means cooperation without future membership, this is a different situation. If cooperation means to finally have a membership, then the situation is different. It is up some of our neighbors and Turkey, it is one of those neighbors, to decide if they want to become members, yes or no. So far, my knowledge is they want to become members and in that respect, we expect certain reorientations in the way Turkey is developing itself” he said.
Echoing previous remarks by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, during a joint visit to the southeastern border province of Gaziantep on April 23 along with European Council President Donald Tusk, European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Davutoğlu warned Turkey would stop taking back migrants from Europe if the bloc failed to keep its word on visa-free travel for its citizens.
“This kind of tone, this kind of language is certainly not the language [used] among the people who want to become not only partners, but friends, who want to become a member of a club. I think in that sense, we expect mutual respect in the way how we communicate, number one” Hahn said of Davutoğlu's remarks.
“Number two, [I don't exactly take such threats personally] because I don't want to comment on it to stay polite because it is honestly among the people trying to achieve a common goal; this is not the way forward” he said.
“We have agreed on an action plan and this action plan covers many, many elements. Of course the refugee crises was, if you like, a triggering element of this action plan. Visa liberalization is one element. And I think and I am convinced that there is a mutual understanding that everything should be done within a certain time frame. Our understanding was always if Turkey wants to speed up the process leading to visa liberalization, we are more than happy. In the past, there was not this kind of urgency. If this is now the case, fine, but we cannot renounce our conditions because we are negotiating with other countries like Ukraine, Georgia but also Kosovo very recently on visa liberalization and there we apply a certain methodology, certain criteria.”
“I think we are crystal clear on our assessment about the situation in Turkey … You can rely on us because there aren't different kinds of rule of law. There is only one rule of law. There is only one democracy. We don't have different kinds of democracy, European and Turkish ones. There is only one democracy. If you are committed to it, then it is fine but it is not only the commitment but it is also the way how you live it. This is why negotiations take time and this has to be understood and acknowledged by all partners. And what applies for our friends in Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, the same applies also for Turkish colleagues.”
Hahn described the state of affairs surrounding media freedom in Turkey for both Turkish and foreign journalists as “a very huge concern.”
“Because it is definitely not in accordance with our rule of law standards. That is why I personally believe very strongly in this accession process momentum because if we are negotiating Chapter 23 and 24, we have exactly this kind of leverage which allows us to discuss with our Turkish colleagues about, for instance, this issue: freedom of expression. The same applies for the independence of the judiciary and other things. And that's why this is something which not only applies for Turkey, but also applies for the countries in the western Balkans. I prefer to speak about the process and less about negotiations because it is not only about ticking a box, ‘I have adopted this and this law,' but it is about the implementation of the track record. A kind of accountable performance on freedom of expression, is probably everywhere, defined and fixed in legislation but it is about how it is applied, if it is respected? Yes or no? Certainly here we have room for discussions; let's put it in that way” he said.
‘Soft' Europeans and a political solution to the Kurdish conflict
Hahn was reminded of articles in European media suggesting that Europe was concerned over a probable wave of Kurdish migrants due to the ongoing renewed conflict in Turkey's southeast, mainly because of its impact on civilians with a growing population of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) reminiscent of the 1990s.
“I am less concerned about an additional migration wave, but I am more concerned about another conflict. And I mean, in all of our discussions, we really urge our colleagues to look for a political solution of this conflict. Because only a political solution is a sustainable one” he said.
When asked whether he heard any comment to this argument during his meeting with EU Minister Volkan Bozkır, he said: “There is more of an understanding that before any political solution there must be a kind of a military solution. I have my doubts about this. But once again, maybe, we Europeans are too soft, looking too much for peace and things like that but we have also some examples in Europe that finally ethnic conflicts can only be resolved in a political way. Take Northern Ireland, take the Basque conflict and take the western Balkans, with tensions with Albanian minorities in some countries. So finally it was always a political solution. There is never an armed solution which led to a sustainable peace and reconciliation process. This is why I don't believe that in this part of the world things are different; we are all human beings.”
Secularism a subject for Turkish electorate
Hahn shied away from making a clear-cut comment on Parliamentary Speaker İsmail Kahraman's remarks suggesting on April 25 that the principle of secularism “must be removed” from Turkey's constitution.
“First of all the decision about the constitution is subject to a decision of the Turkish parliament, and the Turkish parliament is elected by the Turkish people. So I don't want to intervene about what is decided by the Turkish parliament. I cannot make any comment on what it means for our accession negotiation. Usually we are cooperating with the Venice Commission, which is an institution of the Council of Europe. They are very well experienced in looking at constitutions and they are making their comments, which is a very strong reference for us. This is what I can say for the moment,” he said.
When asked whether secularism is a must for a democracy, he replied: “In Europe we have usually a separation between the state and church, for good reasons. I think every society has to decide about its structure. But within the European Union we have a certain frame and that is why we will see what it means. For the moment I cannot make any further comments. But once again, it is a decision by the parliament. The speaker of a parliament is a very important person, but honestly I have to stop making comments about individual statements otherwise we are getting lost.”