Turkey’s current Islamist rulers, swamped in a neck-deep corruption dragnet and scared of being held accountable for allegedly aiding and abetting radical groups in Syria, have no interest or incentive whatsoever to fully live up to the country’s commitments specified in the action plan for the visa liberalization roadmap that is the backbone of the recent refugee deal between Turkey and the EU.
The real motivation on the part of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his associates in Turkey’s Islamist government is to create a fanfare to improve their pariah image with photo-ops in high-level meetings and summits with European leaders, while pitching to the domestic audience that the EU was brought to its knees in the face of Turkish demands for visa-travel regime. In other words, the issue of refugees and irregular migrants is just a means to achieve personal political interests for Turkey’s rulers, who will do everything in their power to thwart progress on some of the most challenging benchmarks mentioned in the action plan.
The real problem in the implementation of the visa action plan roadmap — officially launched on Dec. 16, 2013 and later amended in a refugee deal on Nov. 29, 2015 — will emerge when Erdoğan and his associates start dragging their feet on fulfilling requirements concerning the judiciary, rights and freedoms. The technical criteria will not be a problem because the relevant ministries will find a way to satisfy many of the 72 criteria asked of Turkey by the EU. The sticking part will be the political and legal criteria.
The evaluation report issued by the European Commission on Oct. 20, 2014, which assessed how Turkey is measured against these 72 benchmarks, helped to shed some light on the future trajectory. Nothing has really changed since that last update. According to officials from Turkey’s Ministry for European Union Affairs, only 13 out of 72 fully met the EU criteria, while 10 did not. The remaining 49 have been deemed “partially fulfilled” or “almost fulfilled.” The EU may offer a different perspective on some of these in its next update but nevertheless, that is a good snapshot of where we stand for the moment.
In the criteria mentioned in the area of fundamental rights, one of the five blocks in which the commission grouped the requirements, Turkey has actually regressed rather than progressed since the 2014 EU assessment of the roadmap. This will also be a litmus test for Brussels to show how sincere it is in pushing Turkey to make progress on rights and freedoms. Even in the benchmark of freedom of movement for Turkish citizens, for which the European Commission said the requirement was fulfilled, perhaps a revisit is required given that a government-led campaign has imposed foreign-travel restrictions on dissidents and opponents with differing views from the prevailing political Islamist ideology of the government.
One benchmark put up by the European Commission advised Turkey to harmonize its laws in compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and the EU acquis with regard to “organized crime and terrorism, as well as its interpretation by the courts and by the security forces and the law enforcement agencies, so as to ensure the right to liberty and security, the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression, of assembly and association in practice.” That was assessed as “partially fulfilled” by the commission in 2014.
Considering how the Turkish government has escalated the crackdown on those listed rights and abused the criminal justice system and existing anti-terrorism and organized crime legislations to punish critics and opponents since 2014, perhaps a new category in the commission’s assessment report suggesting that Turkey is “far from satisfying these criteria” instead of their being “partially fulfilled” would be closer to the truth. The Council of Europe (CoE), its relevant institutions such as the Venice Commission and the ECtHR as well as CoE Secretary-General Thorbjørn Jagland have all invested a lot recently in highlighting problems in this area. Yet there has been no progress so far in improving problems. Far from it, Turkey has slid back even further.
It appears Turkey will clear the backlog on signing and ratifying long-delayed international conventions on public order, security and corruption and terrorism matters to meet the criteria in another block of the roadmap. However, the actual implementation of these conventions will remain problematic given the track record of the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and its performance, which is well below such expectations. As long as there is no independent and impartial judiciary, which is dominated by AKP hacks and thugs, it will be an impossible mission to produce meaningful cooperation with the requirements of these conventions.
The government has already pervasively abused the criminal justice system so it can harass critics rather than dismantle terrorist and organized crime networks. In fact, there are growing indications that criminal enterprise has been flourishing under the AKP government, which is bent on using clandestine networks and paramilitary forces to fulfill its political goals. Prosecutors and judges have been arbitrarily removed from cases that could hurt the government or ruling politicians and those who have pushed for compliance with the law have been purged and even arrested on trumped-up charges.
The law enforcement agencies, already demoralized by unprecedented purges and reshuffles, have been highly politicized by the Islamists and they lack any incentive to crack down on Islamist terrorist groups and pro-government organized crime syndicates. The hushed-up corruption investigations of December 2013, which incriminated senior figures in the AKP government including Erdoğan, and the ensuing upheaval in branches of the police and judiciary, with tens of thousands dismissed, purged or even arrested without trial for months, set a very bad precedent for Turkey. No police or judicial probe can be launched against anybody who is affiliated with the ruling class or seen as close to the government. Therefore, under this climate, it is difficult to develop effective cooperation between the Turkish police and judicial authorities and European counterparts to produce a meaningful result.
For example, the government can prosecute foot soldiers in human smuggling and the trafficking network of irregular migrants and foreign fighters but the real masterminds will remain at large, provided they maintain close ties with the ruling party. There is already a vacuum in Turkey in terms of a legal framework that would prevent smugglers from people trafficking. Therefore, political protection of smugglers, coupled with the absence of rigorous legal rules, exacerbates problems in Turkey. The revolving door that lets smugglers go free even after their detention by Turkish law enforcement agencies, including the coast guard in Turkish waters off the Aegean Sea, is an indicative symptom of this persistent problem.
Another benchmark in the action plan relates to Turkey’s performance in the prevention of money laundering and financing of terrorism. Although Turkey has adopted domestic legislation to that effect, it has never exercised these new powers against criminal and terrorist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In fact, in violation of the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the AKP government abused these very powers to seize companies owned by businesspeople that supported the opposition. The case of prominent businessman Akın İpek is a perfect example of this. The AKP government invented terrorism charges, pursued a politically motivated witch hunt against him and eventually took over dozens of his highly profitable companies, including the third-biggest media outlet in the country.
The list of Turkey’s shortcomings in this roadmap is a long one but suffice to say that it is simply impossible to meet all the criteria as long as the AKP leadership holds Turkey hostage to its own political project, which is based on a highly divisive political Islamist ideology, a corrupt patronage system and partisan nomenklatura in the civil service. Clearly, Erdoğan and his people are ready to give concessions on any issue that will not harm their personal interests and will ensure their survival amid significant legal challenges. They appear to be less concerned about the nation’s interests or the European Union’s, for that matter.
How the EU responds to Erdoğan’s whims and emotions in the current contractual relationship will certainly set the tone regarding the robustness of future Turkey-EU relations. The EU has come to a critical decision-making juncture on whether or not to continue appeasing Erdoğan for the sake of short-run sweetheart deals at the expense of the sustainability of Turkish accession talks on values and principles.