European Union criticises Turkey's recent legislation
Some reforms conflict with European standards, according to EU officials.
By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 04/03/14
Recent bills strengthening government control of the internet and judiciary have European officials and lawmakers concerned about the direction of Turkey's EU membership bid.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the opening session of the Ministry for European Union Affairs Conference in Istanbul on June 7th 2013. [AFP]
The government has faced domestic and international criticism for recent events in Turkey. Riot police use tear gas to disperse demonstrators trying to march to the Turkish parliament during a protest against the government. [AFP]
The new internet law allows authorities to block websites without a court order and collect information on users' browsing habits.
"The commission takes note of fact that the internet law was signed by the president. The commission has underlined on a number of occasions its concerns regarding the impact of the law on the freedom of expression in Turkey and the necessity that it is in line with European standards. These concerns remain valid now that the law enters into force," Peter Stano, spokesperson for European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fule, told SES Türkiye.
Stano added that European authorities are prepared to continue working with Turkey.
"The commission understands from statements to the press that the government submitted amendments to the law. This represents a further opportunity for the government to address the concerns highlighted and the commission stands ready to provide any assistance the Turkish authorities would further need to ensure compliance with the EU standards," he said.
In a statement, Minister for EU Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu said he has discussed the EU's concerns with Fule.
"We made several phone conversations and letter exchanges. In such a sincere atmosphere with channels of communication widely open, I would expect my counterparts at the Commission to make use of these channels to get the whole picture on any legal amendment based on correct and full information before making any public statement," Cavusoglu said.
Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said "there are profound worries over the course and actions that Turkish authorities seem to be taking."
"It is clear that the internet law, but also the lack of judicial independence and the separation of powers are not in line with the EU accession criteria. Also, Turkey remains the largest jailer of journalists, which shows that it is not a mature functioning democracy," she said in a statement to SES Türkiye.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said on February 24th that the EU should not use the criticism as a reason to stall accession negotiations.
"Up to today, there was no change in the internet law, and I'm wondering whether the EU has continuously opened new chapters? We are doing everything in line with the EU legislation. Don't be afraid, we are doing our homework each day and we are eager in the EU accession," Arinc said.
The internet bill came amid a major corruption probe that has prompted the government to shake up the judiciary and police forces. Stano said the EU has expressed concern about actions that could undermine or reduce the capacity of the police and the judiciary in thoroughly investigating the allegations of wrongdoing, including corruption, ensure accountability and act in an independent manner.
"And we have urged Turkey to take all necessary measures to ensure that allegations of wrongdoing are addressed without discrimination or preference in a transparent and impartial manner," Stano added.
Since the graft probe became public in December, the European Union has sent five letters to Turkey, according to media reports. The most recent one reportedly called on the government to proceed cautiously with the internet and judiciary bills, and to ensure accountability and independence in the investigation. When asked for comment by SES Türkiye, Stano said the European Commission would not comment on private correspondence with its partners.
The legislation on the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), which was signed by President Abdullah Gul, gives the government greater control over the appointment of senior members of the judiciary. The bill also allows the justice minister to initiate disciplinary proceedings for HSYK members.
The law has been criticised for undermining separation of powers. Under one of the most controversial sections, key personnel are to be removed within 10 days of the law going into effect, including the HSYK general secretary and deputies, inspection board chairman and deputies, inspectors, judges, and administrative workers. The HSYK chairman, who will also be the justice minister, will be responsible for filling the posts.
Cavusoglu said in a February 20th interview on NTV that Turkey had adopted five of the EU's eight recommendations for the bill.
"Turkey is a sovereign state. We cannot make each law exactly like they want, however, when the bill comes to the commission, our ministry gave 34 amendment proposals, which are compatible with the recommendations coming from the EU," Cavusoglu said.
Schaake called for an independent international investigation into the different scandals and allegations shaking the country.
"I believe the Turkish government still sees the merits of European membership and I am convinced that the EU can also benefit from this, both strategically and economically. However, membership of the EU looks very far away at the moment and the rhetoric used by the government is not warming relations," she said.
Schaake added that she firmly believes in using the accession process as a path to help the Turkish population in its attempts to increase democracy and freedom.
"In the end, the focus of all EU policy towards Turkey must be on its population who have shown that they aspire towards the European values during the Gezi Park protests this summer, but also more recent protests against new laws further restricting the freedom of expression," she added.
Andrew Duff, a British member of the European Parliament and a member of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, told SES Türkiye that Turkey lost track of its reform agenda, and the EU lost leverage over Turkish domestic affairs because the accession process has lost credibility.
"Truth is we are facing a EU-Turkish paradox: A new chapter has been opened after a long period of deadlock in accession talks, the democratisation package and the 4th judicial package are welcomed and timely, long standing issues such as the Kurdish question and the division of Cyprus are on a good path," Duff said.
Duff added that the Justice and Development Party is ruling in a way that is incompatible with European standards.
"Moreover, the prime minister's political rhetoric shows the lack of understanding he has of how politics is done in Europe," he said.
The government has repeatedly said it is committed to EU membership.
"We believe in full membership of the EU. We want to be an honourable, equal member. We believe in the value of Europe and its shared values, and adopt them," Cavusoglu said in a recent speech.
How do you think the recent legislative changes will impact Turkey's EU bid? Share your thoughts in the comments area.