EU ignores rights crackdown

EU ignores rights crackdown

The contrast was jarring: Just days after the police broke into the offices of an opposition newspaper using tear gas and water cannon, Turkey's prime minister was greeted in Brussels with offers of billions in aid, visa-free travel for Turks in Europe and renewed prospects for joining the European Union.

The juxtaposition highlighted the conundrum Europe faces as it seeks solutions to its worst refugee crisis since World War II. To win Turkey's desperately needed assistance in stemming the flow of migrants to the continent, European officials seem prepared to ignore what critics say is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's steady march toward authoritarianism.

It is a moment of European weakness that the Turkish leadership seems keen to capitalise on. As Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu arrived in Brussels this week, he upped the ante, asking for more financial aid than was previously negotiated and demanding visa-free travel by June, while offering to take back some migrants who have crossed into Europe.

The Turkish offer was hailed as a "breakthrough" on Tuesday by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, spoke about a "common understanding" between Europe and Turkey. They said they hoped to work out the details at a summit meeting on March 17 and 18.

Yet criticism of Turkey's media crackdown was mild, with President François Hollande of France saying: "Cooperation with Turkey doesn't mean we should not be extremely vigilant about press freedom."

The refugee crisis -- more than 1 million people fleeing war and hardship in the Middle East and beyond have landed on Europe's shores -- has significantly shifted the balance of power between Turkey and Europe. Membership in the EU was once seen as a carrot to induce Turkey to push through democratic reforms. Now it is offered as an enticement for Turkish help to contain the flow of refugees, with Europe, critics say, choosing to set aside its values to secure Turkish cooperation.

"More rights and freedoms for people in Turkey has been the reason why I supported accession," said Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament. But nowadays, she said, "we see the trading away of principles in the mere hope of solutions to Europe's own challenges in dealing with asylum seekers and migrants".

In addition to the media crackdown, critics have been concerned by the renewed fighting in Turkey's southeast between the army and Kurdish insurgents. They say Europe should do more to push the two sides to return to peace talks.

Recently, membership talks between Turkey and the EU led to more democracy within Turkey, analysts say. To put itself in line with European values, Turkey abolished the death penalty, legalised education and news broadcasts in the Kurdish language, granted more rights to non-Muslim minorities and curbed the military influence over politics. Now that is shifting.

"EU-Turkey relations today are merely transactional," said Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish columnist who sometimes contributes to The New York Times. "We can give you this, you can give us that. You take back some refugees, we give you free visas. It is not about Turkey becoming an EU-style liberal democracy."

Mr Erdogan, Turkey's pre-eminent political figure since 2003, once embraced democratic reforms in the hopes of obtaining EU membership. But in recent years, as those hopes faded, the early gains were reversed. There was a tough crackdown on government protesters in the summer of 2013. There was a corruption investigation that prompted the government to purge the judiciary and police of perceived enemies. And there has been the erosion of press freedoms.

Now, rather than being the leader of a glittering Islamic democracy, Mr Erdogan, who remains extremely popular among his religiously conservative base, is often compared to Vladimir Putin, the leader of Russia -- an authoritarian leader with little regard for freedom of expression.

Underscoring this pivot in Turkey, even as Mr Davutoglu was meeting with European leaders on Monday, the Turkish authorities, backed by a court order, moved to seize the Cihan News Agency. Like Zaman, which was seized last week, Cihan is linked to the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a rival of Mr Erdogan's who lives in exile.

And as the talks were progressing in Brussels on Monday, Mr Erdogan, in a speech in Ankara, denounced the Europeans for failing to deliver on their pledge of more than US$3 billion (about 105 billion baht) in aid for refugees.

"They promised to give us 3 billion euros [about 116 billion baht], and four months have passed since then," he said. "The prime minister is in Brussels right now. I hope he returns with that money, the 3 billion euros."

Activists, press freedom advocates and Turkish liberals who once counted on the prospect of EU membership to bring about more democratic reforms have reacted with despair to Europe's muted criticism of what they see as Turkey's increasingly anti-democratic behaviour.

"Is the EU determined to let itself be humiliated?" Christophe Deloire, the secretary-general of the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, asked on Monday. He noted that Turkey's seizure of the daily newspaper Zaman had come last week as Mr Tusk was on a visit to Ankara.

Svante Cornell, a Turkey analyst and director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, said the various crackdowns on the news media "illustrate fully the charade that EU-Turkey relations have become".

"The timing of Turkey's move against Zaman was ostentatious," he said, "suggesting Erdogan's government is not even trying to pretend to live up to European norms and values."

This week Zaman, now overseen by court-appointed trustees, quickly shifted from a steadfast critic of the government to a voice of support, a transformation neatly illustrated by Tuesday's front-page headlines about the summit meeting in Brussels.

"A green light from the EU for Turkey's demands," one read.

New York Times

News agency

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