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Turkish-EU Talks Rekindle Membership, Human Rights Hopes

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) stands with European Council President Donald Tusk before a meeting at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium, May 25, 2017.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) stands with European Council President Donald Tusk before a meeting at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium, May 25, 2017.

European Union and Turkish officials are scheduled to meet in Brussels Tuesday to try and put Turkey’s decades-long, on-again, off-again bid to join the EU back on track.

Turkish-EU relations recently hit one of their lowest ebbs following a bitter war of words between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Brussels over his controversial referendum to extend his powers. The latest effort to reset ties was the fruit of Erdogan’s visit to Brussels after his April referendum victory.

“It’s very encouraging because it shows both sides are willing to maintain dialogue," said Unal Cevikoz, a retired Turkish ambassador to London who now heads the Ankara Policy Forum research group.

"If the dialogue is interrupted, then it will be very difficult to start that kind of contact again. They [Erdogan and EU leaders] have also agreed on a road map which will continue for one year and, in this road map, that certain steps ... have to be taken, step by step."

Shared interests in dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis and regional security concerns have provided a powerful incentive to reset relations. Brussels hopes that will give it new leverage to press Ankara over its ongoing crackdown following a coup attempt last July. The crackdown has resulted in more than 100,000 people losing their jobs and the arrests of more than 50,000 others, including many presidential critics.

“There is a serious attempt in Turkey by pro-democratic forces to keep the democratic flag flying, and support from democrats and democratic regimes around the world, including the EU, is needed,” said Al-Monitor columnist Semih Idiz “But pressure from Europe on this score, unless accompanied by some tangible carrot, will not have many results and could aggravate the situation further.”

Erdogan is pressing for the opening of new EU membership chapters (i.e., statutes). Currently, 16 out of the 35 membership chapters required to join the EU have been opened and only one has been completed.

“The priority should be Chapters 23 and 24 because these are very much in relation to justice and judiciary, the rule of law, fundamental rights and freedoms,” said Cevikoz.

The call to open Chapters 23 and 24 is backed by Turkey's main opposition Republican People’s Party, along with human rights groups. Opening those chapters is opposed by the Greek Cypriot government in connection with its ongoing dispute with Ankara over the divided Mediterranean island. Other EU members, however, privately say not opening those chapters would be exploited by Erdogan.

There are growing doubts over Brussels' commitment to confronting Ankara over its human rights record. "The role of appeasement is not going to work with Turkey,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher for the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

"It’s no good for the EU to turn a blind eye to the head of Amnesty International in Turkey being jailed, to the crackdown in civil society in Turkey, the way the media has been decimated in Turkey,” she said.

Last week, Taner Kilic, the head of Amnesty International in Turkey, was charged with supporting terrorism in connection with July’s failed coup and jailed.

Sinclair-Webb added that “the EU is much more focused on keeping refugees and migrants out of EU and on counterterrorism cooperation, and all of that has put human rights very much on the back burner for the EU.”

Last March, Ankara signed an agreement with Brussels to stem the flow of millions of migrants and refugees entering the EU. Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to end the deal, accusing Brussels of failing to honor its commitment to grant visa-free travel for Turks to the EU. Keeping the deal alive is widely seen as a priority for Brussels.

EU members are also courting Ankara for greater security cooperation in the war against Islamic State. Turkey, which borders Syria and Iraq, is the main route for jihadists seeking to enter Europe. According to Turkish authorities, the suicide bomber responsible for last month's blast outside of a concert in Manchester entered the UK via Istanbul, while one of the assailants in this month's attack in London tried last year to enter Syria by traveling to Istanbul.

Analysts say Turkey's role in counterterrorism will grow with Islamic State facing defeat in Iraq and Syria. Many European jihadists are expected to try and return home.

Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist and expert on European affairs, said “EU-Turkish relations will be revised completely in coming months."

"Turkey’s relationship will be limited to the refugee deal and an enhanced free trade agreement," he added. "Not only will the Turkish regime not let the EU meddle in Turkish politics, but the Europeans are not interested in saving Turkish democracy. They [Ankara and Brussels] both agree on that.”