Tensions between the EU and Turkey over human rights were on full display in Brussels on Tuesday (25 July), a day after the opening of a trial of journalists and staff at the Cumhuriyet daily in Istanbul. As EU Observer writes in an article "EU and Turkey fail to defuse tensions", EU diplomacy chief Federica Mogherini, EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn, and Turkish foreign and Europe ministers, Mevlut Cavusoglu and Omer Celik, held tense exchanges during a press conference that followed a round of the so-called high level political dialogue.
The EU wants to "see concrete steps on the field of rule of law, human rights, democracy, media freedom, protection of human rights defenders, opposition leaders," said Mogherini. "I would tend to focus more on actions that we expect more than on words we can exchange," she added, referring to what she described as a "worrying pattern of imprisonment" of journalists, academics, and regime opponents.
Turkey's Cavusoglu said there was a difference between "real journalists" and "pseudo-journalists who help terrorist activities and terrorists." "Just because you're carrying out a journalistic activity doesn't mean that you will not carry out a criminal offence," he said. Since last year's coup, Turkish authorities have accelerated a crackdown on critics and opponents, often under the charge of helping the movement of exiled Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen - which they say was behind the coup - or the Kurdish PKK party. Mevlut Cavusoglu deplored that "since the coup, the EU sees all action taken against Feto [Gulen's movement] as a violation of law."
His colleague Omer Celik said that "Daesh [Islamic State], Feto and PKK are all equal" and "should be treated equally".
Mogherini noted that she couldn't see "at the moment" the EU changing its position to designate Gulen's movement as a terrorist organisation.
According to Cavusoglu, since president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, "not a single law brought [Turkey] backward” in democratic terms. They "all strengthened the rule of law and democratisation," he said, adding that "if there are mistakes, we try to correct them."
The Commission’s Hahn said that "the whole follow up" to the failed coup in July 2016 “has created some concerns among member states”. He added that a referendum to strengthen Erdogan's power, in April, also “raised concerns about the direction and the structure of some of constitutional amendments”. As a consequence, he said, opening new chapters in negotiations for Turkey's EU accession "is not possible" at the moment.
Federica Mogherini admitted that "Turkey is and stays a candidate country. She added that it was also "a strategic partner" and said EU-Turkey relations should focus on "common challenges".
But for Celik, the Turkish Europe minister, accession talks were the "backbone" of EU-Turkey relations. "We can't put aside negotiations and solely focus on energy, anti-terrorism and trade," he said. "We are not only a neighbouring country." He noted that issues where the EU and Turkey had "disagreements" were issues covered by chapters 23 and 24 of accession negotiations - on justice and fundamental rights. "They must be opened,” he told Mogherini and Hahn, arguing that solving human rights issues should not be a pre-condition to open the chapters, but a part of the subsequent discussions. "If there are problems, we must negotiate more," he said, adding that it was "not realistic to stop negotiations".
Another issue was the EU's refusal to grant a visa-free regime to Turkish citizens because of anti-terror legislation. The accelerated visa waiver was to be part of an EU-Turkey deal last year on stopping migrants, but only if Turkey met conditions, including by softening its terrorism laws so that they could not be used against political opponents.
"When we put our signature on something, we fully observe our commitments. That's where we differ," Cavusoglu said.
"As you see, the dialogue is real and vibrant," Mogherini told reporters at the end of the hour-long press conference. She suggested that "next time we have the dialogue with the press directly."