It’s Time for Europe to Walk Away From Its Refugee Deal With Turkey

The Turkish government's latest assault on fundamental freedoms should make the EU’s deal with Ankara null and void.

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On June 20, the Turkish government’s crackdown on human rights took another turn for the worse when a court placed Sebnem Korur Fincanci, Erol Onderoglu, and Ahmet Nesin in pre-trial detention on charges of “terror propaganda.” The three were among 44 journalists and activists who have acted as temporary editors for the persecuted pro-Kurdish newspaper, Ozgur Gundem, since its editors-in-chief were imprisoned in early May. Thirty-seven of the 44 temporary editors are under investigation, but these are the first three to be arrested. They face up to 14 1/2 years in prison each.

Turkey’s assault on fundamental freedoms has been building steam for years, and especially since the resumption of fighting with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) last summer, it has become a frequent subject of international coverage. Even amid the never-ending torrent of bad news from Ankara, though, these new arrests are significant — both for what they say about where Turkey is headed and for the future of the European Union’s cynical migrant deal with President Erdogan.

This episode shows that “mainstream” Turkish human rights activists — not just those closely affiliated with the Kurds or the Gulen movement — are now in the crosshairs.

Fincanci is a widely published forensic scientist and one of Turkey’s best-known human rights activists — she helped write the U.N.’s manual for documenting torture so it would stand up in court. In the last year, her organization, the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, has been the only one publicly documenting casualties in the state’s war against the PKK.

Onderoglu, too, has been a defender of the rights of Kurds and leftists in Turkey, but he was still considered a meticulous, neutral monitor of free speech issues. A longstanding editor and researcher for the Turkish press monitoring organization Bianet, he has also been the Turkey representative of Reporters Without Borders for 20 years.

If activists like these have become the government’s enemies, anyone else could be next. In this respect, the latest arrests recall the government’s recent expulsions of foreign journalists. Up to now, there have been some red lines beyond which the government would not attack, but one by one, it has erased them without consequences.

The arrests are also a signal to the European Union. In November, at the height of the EU’s panic about the migrant crisis, then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made a proposal: if Brussels would grant Turkish citizens visa-free access to the EU Schengen zone (as well as some other sweeteners), Turkey would prevent migrants from crossing the Aegean and accept the EU’s deportation back to Turkey of those who had already made it. Led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU’s desperate political leaders agreed. The flow of migrants dried up almost immediately, and the EU advanced the deadline for finalizing the visa liberalization agreement with Turkey to the end of June.

The problem for the EU is that the visa negotiations had begun long before the refugee deal, and that, like all EU harmonization processes, the talks were supposed to be based on technical issues, not political considerations. The 72 requirements that constitute the “roadmap” for Turkey to achieve visa-free travel to Europe are matters of public record that cannot simply be tossed aside when they become inconvenient. As of May 4, there were five outstanding requirements. The most important one is number 65: revising the legal framework concerning organized crime and terrorism “to ensure the right to liberty and security, the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression, of assembly and association.”

This benchmark requires Turkey to change the laws precisely at issue in this week’s prosecutions: its vague and overly broad definition of terrorism, under which even a newspaper editor who prints a story about the PKK that deviates from the official line can be jailed for “propaganda.”

The investigation and arrest of prominent figures like Fincanci and Onderoglu on “terror propaganda” charges shows Turkey doesn’t care what the visa liberalization roadmap says. It is not changing its laws on terrorism, and it is daring the EU not to fulfill its side of the migration deal. In February, President Erdogan himself threatened that if the agreement were to fall through, Turkey would open the floodgates back up and send migrants into the EU.

This is the definition of blackmail. It is a tough time for EU leaders, who agreed to the Turkey deal due to intense domestic pressure to do something about the migration crisis. But Ankara’s refusal to change its terror laws and to uphold basic freedoms of speech, assembly, and association should be a clarifying moment. Bargaining away the EU’s values cannot be the solution. Unfortunately, its apparent willingness to use the Turkey deal as a model for future migration agreements with other countries means Brussels is bound to see even more of this kind of extortion.

Even critics of the EU’s migration policies note that increased European support for refugees in Turkey — a provision the current deal includes — is an indispensable component of a sustainable solution to the refugee crisis. But it can only work as part of a larger, coordinated set of reforms: more legal opportunities for refugees to seek asylum in Europe, a single EU border guard and asylum agency that would ensure they are distributed equitably and with full rights across the union, and so on. While the EU is moving hesitantly towards implementing some of these components, as it stalls for time, it is essentially paying Turkey to act as a holding cell for refugees, and negotiating away its own values to boot.

The migration deal was bad from the start: illegal in its treatment of migrants and dangerous in the precedent it created for placing human rights on the negotiating table. With this week’s arrests, Turkey has given the EU an honest opening to walk away from a mistake. The EU should take it.

In the photo, demonstrators protest the detention of three journalists and activists in Istanbul on June 21.

Photo credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Nate Schenkkan is project director of the Nations in Transit publication at Freedom House.

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