Former EU lawmaker rues missed opportunity as top officials visit Turkey

European Union leaders arrived in Turkey on Tuesday after deciding to take no action against the government’s sabre-rattling with Greece or its democratic backsliding.

European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen are meeting with leading Turkish officials including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The trip has been billed in Turkey as a signal that Erdoğan’s months long charm offensive to de-escalate political tensions with the EU is making strides.

The visit, however, is taking place with a backdrop of swirling political turbulence in the country. In the space of a month, the Turkish authorities have sought the closure of the second largest opposition party in parliament, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), an exit from the Istanbul Convention - an international treaty against gender-based violence - and the arrest of retired military officers, who Erdoğan accuses of seeking to conjure up another coup against his government.

Rebecca Harms, a former member of the European Parliament and the Vice Chair for the Centre of European Press and Media Freedom, criticised the EU’s failure to take stronger action against Turkey. She said that she was astonished to see Europe’s leaders offer Turkey a lifeline via a possible update to its Customs Union rather than seek any concessions from Ankara at a summit in March.

“I do not see that there is real progress concerning the line the EU has followed towards Turkey,” Harms told Ahval in a podcast.

Harms dismissed the EU’s apparent embrace of Erdoğan’s promises of reform and a less aggressive foreign policy. She said that contrary to positive statements by EU and Turkish officials, Turkey has not enacted any meaningful democratic reforms despite a human rights action plan announced by Erdoğan last month.

The most obvious example of Erdoğan’s insincerity the intensified political and legal pressure on the HDP, Harms said. She pointed to the dismissal of democratically elected mayors from the HDP in southeast Turkey after the 2019 local elections and the continued defiance of the European Court of Human Rights’ demand to release political prisoners such as HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş.

“It is simply unacceptable that more and more elected politicians are incarcerated and having no chance of any kind of fairness in independent trials and courts,” Harms said.

The EU has criticised a move by Turkish prosecutors to shut down the HDP as well as Erdoğan’s abandonment of the Istanbul Convention, both of which preceded the March summit. It also listed the sanctions it was ready to impose on Turkey should it re-adopt an aggressive posture against Greece and Cyprus in the Mediterranean. Harms said that the EU had missed an opportunity to react to Erdoğan’s democratic backsliding.

Turkey’s economy is struggling under the weight of high inflation, a weakening lira and rising unemployment, as well as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic problems influenced Erdoğan’s decision to seek an improvement in relations with the EU, Turkey’s biggest trading partner. Harms said that the bloc has squandered any leverage it had economically by not pushing for genuine democratic reform.

“I am definitely against an upgrade of the Customs Union if Turkey does not deliver on human rights or rule of law,” she said.