The trouble with Turkey

The November election victory for the conservative AKP party has thrown a new wrench into Turkey’s application for EU membership. Repeated human rights violations, and media crackdowns worry Brussels, but the Turks feel other forces are at play

Tear gas – the best trick we found was lemon juice! Rub a little below your eyes and of course, you need a mask”

Nazlı Uçarn explains at a snug cafe in Copenhagen, far away from the streets of Istanbul learned that lesson the hard way. She’s a PhD student from Turkey but has been studying in Copenhagen via an EU exchange programme. She self-identifies as Muslim, but when I suggest we have coffee she decides on beer. She is one of numerous young Turks who have taken to the streets in recent year to voice their distrust of the autocratic government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

That distrust is mirrored in Turkey’s relationship with the EU and the country’s turbulent membership negotiations have been debated for over 20 years. Crackdowns against mass-demonstrations in 2013 brought discussions to a standstill amid EU concerns over human rights violations just as centre-right then-Prime Minister Erdoğan spearheaded a renewed push for closer ties with Europe.

The negotiations were further jeopardised this year, as amidst escalating political tensions the government in Ankara faced a fresh allegations of human rights violations. On November 10 the European Commission released its annual report on prospective membership countries that highlighted that criticism. The report, which was published a week later than schedule so as not to interfere with Turkey’s November 1 elections, found that “there was significant backsliding in the areas of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.”

Speaking at the reports unveiling EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn specifically stressed the “increased pressure and intimidation of journalists and media outlets” as being worrisome.

The discourse on Turkish integration, however, is invariably framed from a European perspective – a dialogue founded on human rights violations in the country. The allegations are well founded, so just how ready is the EU for Turkey?

Human rights
Flicking through her photos from the protests, it’s easy to grasp the frustration Nazlı shares with many Turks. In 2013, widespread anger spilled onto streets of Istanbul, rattling the Turkish establishment and provoking a hard line response.

“It all started with a small protest about a park” says Nazlı, “They wanted to cut down the trees, but things escalated. I was in the middle of important exams, but I closed my books and slept in the park for three days. For ten days I was on the streets. We learnt to configure our computers so we couldn’t be detected. Then I knew Turkey needed change, we needed human rights”.

The heavy police presence in Istanbul is hard to avoid.

The heavy police presence in Istanbul is hard to avoid.

The repercussions of the Gezi park crackdowns were felt in Brussels. In the EU’s 2014 Progress Report the Commission highlighted “serious concerns regarding the independence of the judiciary and separation of powers”.

As I visit Istanbul the streets surrounding Taksim square – the flashpoint of the 2013 protests – tensions have abated, however, the spectre of police brutality still looms over the neighbourhood. During a stroll down the main shopping street on a bustling Saturday morning a thirty strong riot unit lines up. Shoppers pass by unphased whilst tourists like myself gawk at the display of force.

Later that day I asked a street vendor what prompted the police presence. I was shot back a bemused look: “It’s the weekend. Small groups march sometimes … about library, schools. Don’t you have this in Europe?”

I spent the rest of the day around Taksim, but no demonstrators appeared from the swirl of shoppers.  Eventually a group of around fifteen emerged carrying two signs that read “cloud construction victims association” – the group had lost property rights following a shady housing development in Cyprus. They wandered politely down the street, catching less attention than the police, before stopping to form a huddle and packing away their placards.

Aside from the heated ‘intercontinental derby’ the following day – a match between the city’s fiercest football rivals on the European and Asian banks of the Bosphorus – Istanbul has the air of a city very much in control. Perhaps too much control.

They love their football in Turkey.

They love their football in Turkey.

Turkey was ranked 154th alongside Gambia and Iraq in the World Press Freedom Index 2014 – a sharp contrast to the Scandinavian dominance in the top ten. In February 2015, a controversial ‘internal security’ bill was introduced into Parliament aimed at strengthening police powers, particularly at demonstrations.

From the June parliamentary elections, where Erdogan’s AKP Party lost its majority, until the hastily announced elections in November, 40 journalists were detained while working. And on October 28, three days before the elections, riot police stormed the offices of the media group Koza Ipek Holding, halting its election coverage and forcing its TV station Bugun TV to broadcast WWII footage and documentaries about the lives of camels.

Economic conundrum
Whilst it might come as a surprise, the country has longstanding commitments to human rights and has been a member of the Council of Europe since 1949. Although membership should be taken with a pinch of salt (Russia repeatedly ignores rulings by the European Court of Human Rights), constitutional amendments in 2010, which bolstered social rights, do reflect some desire for reform.

Paradoxically, the slow road to EU membership has left Turks frustrated. As an organisation based on economic integration, many questioned the EU’s integrity when it halted negotiations on the basis of human rights.


On the European side, in one of Beyoğlu’s hip bars I meet Ceren Kaysadı (above). Like the lounge we are in, she epitomises Turkey’s Europhile class – shunning religious dogma and the current political class.

“At the time of the riots I worked for a digital marketing agency. On the day it started I was going about my regular tasks. I turned my head and saw a tree on fire. As someone who cares about human rights, I immediately jumped in, I was already full of disgust at the government”

“I understand Turkey has failed when it comes to human rights and I get that this is the reason we’re not in, but at the same time it isn’t sincere”, she pauses then adds, “Economically speaking we’ve been ready for the EU for a long time. Turkey is richer, more sophisticated than many of our EU neighbours in the west.”

In 2013, the EU’s growth flatlined whilst the Greek economy contracted by 7 percent. That same year, Turkey maintained growth above 4 percent.

Istanbul’s burgeoning skyline reflects the figures, but you don’t need to look up to appreciate Turkey’s entrepreneurial spirit. Below the covers of the grand bazaar, competition is fierce, verging on aggressive.

Dodging vendors carrying pretzel-esque Simit and Açma – its doughnut-like sibling – I was accosted by a shoe seller who stared down at my feet in dismay. “You sir, you need new shoes”, he said, before dragging me back through the rabbit warren to his cluttered boutique.


When I tell Ceren about my ordeal at the bazaar she laughs, “You know that place is a tourist trap!” When I ask her about the EU’s reluctance to open its doors to the booming Turkish economy, however, she turns quiet.

“Sadly, I think the general perception here – it’s because we’re Muslim. If you think about why the EU was formulated in the first place it’s hard to find reasons why Turkey shouldn’t be a member”

“A lot of Turkish people are aware of Islamophobia in the EU. We read it in the media all the time – Turkish people killed in Germany or some Dutch politician who wants to shut down all the mosques in his town. These stories aren’t the Europe we look up to. We’re attracted to joining the EU but we just don’t see it ever happening. Nobody does.”

“Especially with recent events, like Charlie Hebdo, the shootings in Copenhagen – I fear they could encourage Islamophobia. I’ve personally never experienced it – that’s because I’ve got blue eyes and paler skin. But when I lived in the Netherlands I saw my friends with darker skin, covered heads – they’re treated differently”

“We feel like we still want to go to Europe, but we feel afraid. Even me, after living abroad in many countries, whenever I go to Europe I ask myself – should I say I’m a Turk – or should I just say I’m American”.


Another shadow hanging over the negotiation table is the free movement of people – a ‘cornerstone’ of Union law.

Recently described by Angela Merkel as “non-negotiable”, this jewel in the EU’s crown has an ugly side: integration.

According to Ceren, the issue isn’t isolated to the EU.

“Some Turks aren’t even ready to integrate in Istanbul, let alone in Amsterdam or the heart of Vienna. I understand that fear, I understand that if the EU takes in Turkey it might welcome us, but not our citizens.”


Back in Copenhagen I meet Ilka Bruhn (above). She works at Trampolinhuset, a non-profit culture-house in Bispebjerg that raises awareness and breaks the isolation facing asylum seekers in Denmark. Many of whom have come to Denmark via Turkey.”

“Turkey is a receiving country for asylum seekers – many migrate from Syria through Turkey, through Istanbul – so we have people at Trampolinhuset who speak Turkish. Istanbul is their bridge to Europe”

Turkey’s geographical location makes it a jump off point for migrants and refugees fleeing the Middle East and the current refugee crisis has strengthened Turkey’s bargaining position with the EU. In October German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to help move the country’s membership application along and relax visa requirements, should Turkey slow down the flow refugees into Europe.

Ilka who comes from Sydslesvig, the Danish minority in northern Germany, has followed closel  the rise of Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) and other xenophobic organisations.  . Turks, who make up the largest ethnic minority in Germany are often the main focus of derision.

In January this year a record 25,000 marched in Dresden in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Despite equally vocal counter-rallies, Pegida’s strength worries Ilka. “It concerns me, and it says a lot about Europe, about where we are right now.”

Just as I’m putting away my notepad she mentions a Turkish friend, now living in Denmark. “She was imprisoned for posting something on Twitter. She wrote about a Turkish politician, criticised what he was doing. The next thing the police are at her door.” M

Features, News

By Alistair Cooper

A freelance writer and law student from Scotland, Alistair laps up European politics when most switch off.

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