Wednesday

23rd May 2018

Feature

No place for human rights in EU-Turkey visa talks

  • Istanbul pride, in 2013, attracted 50,000 people. Police, this year, fired water cannon and tear gas at activists (Photo: Quinn Dombrowski)

The EU has a formidable instrument to promote its values overseas: visa-free travel. It worked in Ukraine. But it’s not being used in Turkey, in what rights activists increasingly see as a cynical transaction on migrants.

Ukraine is to get a positive visa recommendation from the European Commission by the end of December.

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  • Erdogan (l) on HDP: 'We are not the ones with a homosexual candidate' (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

It had to meet technical standards, for instance, on passport security. But, back in 2010, it was also given a 10-point political to-do list, including anti-corruption reforms and a law on anti-discrimination, which covers discrimination against gay people, in the work place.

The discrimination bill was a tall order.

Large parts of Ukrainian society and many of its politicians hold conservative mores. Homophobia is also being fuelled by Russian propaganda, which says the EU will destroy orthodox values, or, that it will force Ukrainians to give up children for adoption by gay couples in Europe.

Voting by Ukrainian MPs in November indicates the law would never have passed without the EU visa incentive.

The bill fell in the first two votes, despite appeals by president Petro Poroshenko. It passed the third time, by just 234 votes out of 450.

The EU has also promised visa-free travel to Turkey. It is part of a bigger deal, which includes restarting EU accession talks and €3 billion, in return for halting EU-bound refugees.

But, unlike Ukraine, the visa deal comes with few political strings attached.

The commission’s last report on Turkey’s EU visa compliance, a 40-page document published in October, speaks, almost only, of security issues.

It mentions gay rights, in a paragraph on “freedom of movement.” But since Turkey doesn’t stop gay people from travelling, it says the condition is “fulfilled.”

It doesn’t mean gay people in Turkey don’t suffer from homophobia and don’t lack laws to protect them, however.

The commission’s report on Turkey’s broader alignment with EU norms, its EU accession report, published 21 days after the visa text, paints an ugly picture.

It says: gay teachers are being fired; police beat up gay rights activists; and transgender people are being murdered. The Turkish army defines homosexuality as a “disorder.” There are no laws against “hate crimes,” but the Turkish penal code forbids “depiction of sexual behaviour in 'unnatural ways’.”

“There is an urgent need to adopt a comprehensive framework law on combating discrimination,” the commission says.

Urgency

But the sense of urgency is lacking by comparison with Ukraine.

Turkey and the EU opened a new chapter, on economic affairs, in accession talks on 14 December. But chapters dealing with human rights, including gay rights, are locked by the EU’s own veto, to be unlocked only when Cyprus and Turkey end their 40-year old frozen conflict.

The next visa report, due in spring, won’t say anything more on gay rights either.

Mina Andreeva, a commission spokeswoman, told EUobserver, the “focus” will be on “threats and problems for the EU, notably the increase of irregular migration, asylum requests, organised crime, or terrorism.”

“In a nutshell: Yes, Turkey has to carry out reforms in the area of anti-discrimination and pass certain laws, but this is part of the accession process.”

She said: “We will not lower our standards when discussing visa liberalisation.”

But she added the EU visa-free process is “tailor-made” for each country. Ukraine is not an EU entry candidate, so in Kiev the EU used visas to push for rights.

Disingenuous?

For Lilit Poghosyan, a Turkey expert at Ilga-Europe, a Brussels-based gay rights NGO, the commission’s logic is disingenuous, however.

Poghosyan noted that: “Adoption of anti-discrimination laws was a condition included in the visa liberalisation roadmaps of all Western Balkan countries, which are also in the accession process.”

There is fresh hope that UN talks will end the Cyprus-Turkey conflict.

But for Ilga-Europe, locking gay rights in Turkey’s accession box amounts to relegating the issue to an uncertain future.

“The EU’s leverage through the accession process varies from country to country and in the current geopolitical climate this leverage in Turkey is low,” Poghosyan said.

“By contrast, visa liberalisation is a very effective tool to reach the same results faster, as Ukraine proves. It’s one of the best incentives the EU has and, I suppose, in this case the commission wants to use it for matters which it believes to be ‘more important than human rights’.”

Erdogan

For Alon Ben-Meir, a US scholar of international relations, the history of the EU-Turkey accession process tells a similar tale.

Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the EU has betrayed Turkey by its accession veto. Ben-Meir says Erdogan is betraying the EU by cherry-picking chapters which serve his agenda.

Erdogan used EU demands for separation of powers to justify dismantling the Turkish military’s check on his Islamist AKP party.

He used EU single market reforms to attract foreign investors, prompting a business boom, which is decoupled from political change. The opening of the new chapter, on economic affairs, goes in the same direction.

“Erdogan used EU membership talks as an excuse to justify his actions,” Ben-Meir previously told this website.

The Turkish hardman is certainly no friend of gay rights.

In the run-up to elections in spring, he attacked the reformist HDP party on grounds it had a gay candidate, Baris Sulu. A few days after Erdogan spoke, unknown gunmen shot at Sulu’s office in Eskisehir, near Istanbul.

The incident shows that Erdogan, like Russia and its Ukraine propaganda, is using gay rights to help halt pro-EU liberalisation.

Ben-Meir said the Turkish leader, whom he has personally met, is no friend of the EU, either: “[Erdogan] cannot be described as a democrat … nor a European, and certainly not a true Western ally.”

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Authorities in EU countries can no longer impose controversial psychological tests to determine whether an aslyum seeker is telling the truth about their homosexuality.

LGBTI protection still lacking in EU

Despite some welcome advances, some legal rights for the LGBTI community are lacking in EU member states, and the rise of the populist right is making things worse, conference in Warsaw is told.

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