Ahead of Monday’s (26 March) ‘leaders’ meeting’ between EU institution heads and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, pressure groups are highlighting the anti-democratic crackdown ongoing since the failed coup.
75 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) sent a letter yesterday to President of the European Council Donald Tusk and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker ahead of the EU-Turkey Summit, to be held on Monday 26 March in Varna, Bulgaria.
The summit will be hosted by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who lobbied hard for this meeting, despite extremely difficult international circumstances.
The Conclusions of the EU summit adopted on 22 March called out Turkey for “illegal actions” towards Greece and Cyprus, after Ankara’s arrest of two Greek soldiers and its promise to prevent the internationally-recognised Greek Cypriot government from exploring for oil and gas.
Speaking at the final summit presser, Tusk said the Varna meeting would not be an easy one. Juncker confirmed, saying that the “mass of conflictual problems doesn’t stop from growing”.
.@JunckerEU “On #Turkey, I am looking with mixed feelings towards the #VarnaSummit because the differences in views between the EU and #Turkey are many. Will be a frank and open debate where we will not hide our differences but where we will seek to improve our cooperation” #EUCO pic.twitter.com/ahh0CO8Aub
— Mina Andreeva (@Mina_Andreeva) March 23, 2018
Turkey yesterday condemned the EU summit conclusions. “The statement that was issued contained unacceptable comments against our country that serve the interests of Greece and the Greek Cypriots,” foreign ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy told reporters in response to Thursday’s EU conclusions.
In the meantime, 75 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) sent a letter yesterday to Tusk and Juncker ahead of Varna meeting. They urged the EU leaders to bring human rights to the centre of EU relations with Turkey and press Erdoğan to secure the release of dozens of journalists and many others unjustly jailed in Turkey.
“Every journalist unfairly locked up in Turkey is damaging democracy in the country. Their fate should be at the top of EU leaders’ concerns in Varna,” said MEPs.
“Putting critics and journalists behind bars cannot be a response to Turkey’s challenges. It’s the EU’s responsibility to speak out about those unjustly jailed and to remind the world that they should not be behind bars,” MEPs continued.
Ahead of Monday's meeting w/ #Turkey Prez in Varna, 74 MEPs urge @EU_Commission @EUCouncil to bring rights upfront & to press for release of unjustly jailed journos & HRDs
Thx to @RebHARMS @TFajon @MSojdrova @Julie4NW @JordiSoleF @FMCastaldo for leadershiphttps://t.co/SZ1xBgSQAS pic.twitter.com/hxYnNdzLl1
— Philippe Dam (@philippe_dam) March 23, 2018
The only two Bulgarian MEPs who signed the letter are socialists Georgi Pirinski and Peter Kouroumbashev.
Separately, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) wrote to Tusk and Juncker to insist on Turkish respect for press freedom as a condition for progress in relations.
“As you prepare to meet with President Erdoğan in Varna on 26 March, you must be aware of the unprecedented crackdown on journalists and media outlets in Turkey, which is ranked 155th out of 180 countries in RSF’s latest World Press Freedom Index. The Turkish government’s witch hunt against critical media has climaxed since the July 2016 coup attempt.
“The state of emergency in effect since then has allowed the authorities to liquidate around 150 media outlets at the stroke of pen, reducing pluralism to a handful of low-circulation newspapers, including the dailies Cumhuriyet (recipient of the RSF Press Freedom Prize in 2015), Sözcü and BirGün, which are the targets of growing harassment. This week’s acquisition of the Doğan media group by the pro-government conglomerate Demirören completes the subjugation of the mainstream media. Government propaganda now dominates the media landscape.
“Turkey is again the world’s biggest prison for media professionals. Criticizing the authorities, working for a “suspect” media outlet, contacting a sensitive source or using an encrypted messaging service often suffices for a journalist to be imprisoned without the judicial system feeling the need to prove any individual involvement in criminal activity.
“The Turkish courts recently refused to heed several rulings by the constitutional court, the country’s highest court, ordering the immediate release of imprisoned journalists. Their refusal “runs counter to the fundamental principles of the rule of law and legal certainty,” the European Court of Human Rights said this week.
“After being held provisionally for more than a year, journalists are starting to be convicted. The first media figures to be accused of complicity with the coup attempt, the well-known journalists Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazli Ilicak, were sentenced last month to life imprisonment with no possibility of a pardon. A few days later, 25 of their colleagues also received prison sentences. Verdicts are expected soon in the case of 31 former Zaman employees, who will appear in court on 5 April, and in the case of 17 Cumhuriyet employees, whose trial will resume on 24 April.
“Censorship of the Internet and social networks has also reached unprecedented levels. The chronic blocking of many news websites and the frequent social network slowdowns have now been compounded by frequent arrests of Internet users and the blocking of access to censorship circumvention tools (VPNs and the Tor Network). Hundreds of Internet users have been arrested since mid-January for criticizing Turkey’s offensive in Syria’s Afrin region.
“We cannot overstate the degree to which these policies are fraught with peril, including for the EU. Carried out in the name of combatting terrorism, they dangerously increase the country’s instability, which has already been exacerbated by the region’s geopolitical crisis. By raising the political climate to fever pitch and by preventing a democratic debate among the different sectors of the population, President Erdoğan is accentuating the deep divisions in a very polarized society. By undermining the foundations of Turkish democracy and shrinking the sources of independent news and information, he has turned his country into an unpredictable and unreliable partner for Europe.
“We ask you to make it clear to President Erdoğan that Turkey cannot expect any progress in its relations with the EU as long as the authorities continues to trample on press freedom and the rule of law. We fully understand the need to cooperate with Ankara on certain issues but a conditional approach must prevail more than ever in bilateral relations. Although the Turkish authorities claim, for example, to have satisfied all the criteria for Turkish citizens to enjoy visa-free travel within the EU, they still have not amended their terrorism legislation, which continues to be widely used to persecute critics.
“We count on you to firmly ask President Erdoğan to restore pluralism, lift the state of emergency and immediately free all journalists who have been imprisoned without evidence of individual involvement in a crime recognized by international law. The rulings of Turkey’s constitutional court and the European Court of Human Rights on Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan must be implemented without delay. We also ask you to increase EU support for Turkish civil society and independent journalists. They are resisting with determination but the battle is an unequal one. They need help more than ever.”
In addition, the Green/EFA group in the European Parliament called on the EU to stop sending arms to Turkey.
Greens/EFA co-president Ska Keller stated:
“The European Union’s leaders must not allow themselves to continue to be blackmailed by the refugee deal with Turkey. They must put pressure on Turkey to stop bombing Afrin and killing thousands of innocent civilians. We urgently need an EU-wide ban on selling arms to Turkey. Europe must not allow itself to be complicit in the attacks against the Kurds, which are in violation of international law.”
Greens/EFA co-president Philippe Lamberts added:
“The European Union must exert pressure to stop Turkey’s dangerous drift into dictatorship. The EU needs to use its economic leverage to improve human rights and respect for rule of law. The European Commission should manage the funds itself and use them to promote freedom of the press, the independence of the Turkish judiciary, and human rights and democracy.”
In Bulgaria, the largest judiciary organisation has urged Prime Minister Boyko Borissov to appeal to Erdoğan for the release thousands of arrested magistrates in the country.
In addition, the opposition socialists called on Borissov to tell Erdoğan that his statement on 11 March, when he said the Bulgarian city of Kardzhali finds itself “in the spiritual boundaries of Turkey”, in unacceptable.
Also, the socialists urged Borissov to raise the issue of the compensation of the Thracian Bulgarians (in 2013, after the Second Balkan War, 300,000 Bulgarians from territories lost to Turkey became subject to ethnic cleansing. 20,000 to 30,000 were killed by the Turkish army and bashi-bouzouk, the rest sought refuge in the Bulgarian mainland. It is estimated that their descendants are entitled to compensations to the tune of $20 billion.)