Turkey is about to vote in a referendum to decide whether presidential power should be increased. We talk about it and about threats and challenges of the Mediterranean basin democracies with Aylin Ünver Noi, Associate Professor in international relations, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS. She is author of the book “Avrupa’da Yükselen Milliyetcilik- The Rise of Nationalism in Europe” (2007, IQ Istanbul) and co-editor of the book “Challenges of Democracy in the European Union and Its Neighbors” (2016, Johns Hopkins University SAIS-CTR). She is a member of the Advisory Council of the MCA Foundation.
Interviewer: Esma Kucukalic, 16.04.2017
The referendum that the Turks are voting can mark a before and after in the democracy of this country?
Actually, the current constitution of 1982 was written by constituent assembly appointed by military-led National Security Council (NSC) after the military coup in 1980 and excluded the participation of political parties and interest groups. The referendum campaign at the time was one-sided campaign that banned any criticism to pro-Constitution campaign, conducted by the Chair of the NSC, General Kenan Evren. The 1982 constitution is criticized because of its undemocratic features for a long time.
However, 1982 constitution was modified several times through constitutional reforms that were decided during the Turkey’s accession process to the EU. Democratic transformation reached a peak with these constitutional amendments and harmonization packages, with the EU’s influence on constitutional changes in Turkey being felt most strongly between 2001 and 2004. In 2001, 34 amendments made to the 1982 Constitution. This was followed by other 8 constitutional changes including the abolishing the death penalty, revised anti-terror law, permission to broadcast in languages other than Turkish, operationalize previous reforms/revise penal code for torture, retrial of all cases decided in State Security Courts, adoption of Protocol 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights, convert all death sentences to life imprisonment/ repeal Article 8 of Anti-Terror Law, revision of the National Security Council, freedom of press, and priority given to supranational treaties over domestic law, abolition of State Security Courts, changes to Article 46 of the Penal Code, revision of Higher Education Board and the Censure Board. Briefly, a credible EU membership perspective was attained and continued in the 1999–2007 period provided powerful stimulus for constitutional reforms, as well as the harmonization packages.
This time, Turkish citizens will go to polls on 16 April 2017 to decide whether to change the constitution that will turn the political system in the country from parliamentary to presidential one. In comparison to current parliamentary system, this constitutional change that will bring presidential system by abolishing the office of the prime minister and consolidating power of the President is mostly criticized due to the absence of necessary checks and balances, and separation of powers, which are sine qua non of a well-functioning democracy.
Millions of Turkish citizens live in Europe and until last April 9 have participated in this popular consultation that has raised tensions between Turkish government and European governments. How do you rate this diplomatic crisis?
The immigration of Turkish citizens started in the early 1960s to compensate the labor force deficit of European countries. Today there are millions of Turks living in European countries. A considerable portion of these immigrants has double citizenship. Using their voting rights is one of the basic rights of them. As you know that political rallies of Turkish ministers as a part of referendum campaign were banned and they were not allowed to address Turkish immigrants in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. This led to deterioration of Turkey’s relations with these countries. These bans were not just linked with elections, but also xenophobia, and Islamophobia in Europe. Voting for Turks living abroad finished on last Sunday. If it is just linked with the elections, relations will become normal gradually after elections. However, the rise of xenophobic and Islamophobic parties and popular support to them are significant issues that might lead to continuation of these strained relations.
We should not forget that there are other issues which is part of the crisis between the EU and Turkey such as the EU’s tolerance to the members of Fethullah Gulen Terror Organization (FETÖ) – attempted to perform a coup d’état on 15 July 2016 – and PKK terrorists who fleeing from Turkey and seeking for asylum in some European countries.
President Erdoğan has accused Central European governments of Islamophobes and fascists. How do you interpret this escalation of tension facing the position of Turkey as possible EU candidate?
As a result of the above-mentioned developments President Erdoğan accused some European governments of being Islamaphobic and fascist. This was not only the outcome of banned rallies and not allowing the entrance of ministers in these countries, but it was also the outcome of anti- immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric of the far-right parties and their increasing power in Europe. If the rise of populist far-right parties with the increasing support of Europeans continues in the EU member states, Turkey will have no chance of being a EU member state.
Turkey is a key regional player in the Mediterranean that has suffered the most severe terrorism, has an open Kurdish conflict and is also a border country with an entrenched conflict in Syria in which it is actively participating. Can we talk about war also in Turkey?
We cannot say that war is also in Turkey, but we can say that terror threat is in Turkey as many European states that suffer from terror today. Also, you are right Turkey is one of the key players in the Mediterranean that has suffered most severe from terrorism. In 2016, 22 suicide bombings and car bombings that targeted civilians and security forces claimed the lives of 339 people in Turkey.
The post-Arab Spring developments and the emergence of failed states in the Mediterranean region created an environment in which terror can flourished easily and spread beyond its borders. Turkey’s proximity to borders with countries in conflict makes it a very sensitive target for threats and changes the status quo.
Turkey suffers from both “extremist” and “separatist” terrorism. Terror attacks from both Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) increased last couple of years. The ongoing Syrian conflict and emerging changes in the region directly affects Turkey’s security. Increasing terror attacks of both terror organizations led Turkey to decide to use its “hard power” in Syria and Iraq. Turkey launched anti-terror operations across Turkey targeting ISIS, PKK militants, and carried out air strikes and ground attacks on both ISIS and PKK targets in Syria and Northern Iraq to extinguish the terror threat. Turkey also launched “Euphrates Shield” military operation to control northern Syria with the aim to push ISIS away from its borders while to stop the advance of PYD/YPG (Syrian extension of the PKK). Turkey fears PYD/YPG will follow the same path of Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq towards autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Syria that might embolden Kurds of Turkey that have similar demands. “Operation Euphrates Shield” provided Turkey with an opportunity to have on the ground action against to repel threats coming to its territory from Syria. Turkish forces and allied Syrian rebels expelled ISIS from the last part of the Syrian-Turkish border under their control.
Regarding the refugees, Turkey is the second part of the contract with the EU. How would you rate this agreement a year later?
Although the Refugee Deal signed between Turkey and the European Union on 18 March 2016 raised serious questions of compatibility with basic norms on refugees and migrants’ rights since the EU has an unconditional moral duty to open humanitarian pathways to them, including resettlement, for substantial number of Syrian refugees from both Turkey and other countries such as Lebanon and Jordan as stated by the Council of Europe reports, this agreement implemented and provided a tighter control refugee influx to Greece from Turkey.
As a part of this agreement in other words in exchange for the implementation of the refugee deal, The EU promised a visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the EU. The EU asked for changes to Turkey’s anti-terrorism law in order to grant Turkish citizens visa-free travel to the EU. Ankara did not want to change anti-terror law emphasizing the terror threats that Turkey has faced. Five days after the failed coup attempt, the state of emergency was declared and was extended for three months. The EU did not fulfill its commitment to Turkey for visa-free travel to the EU for Turkish citizens. Moreover, the number of refugees agreed to settle are below the pledged number of refugees and the amount of money that were allocated for the care of refugees far below the pledged amount. Burden sharing is significant. The EU countries should provide financial support to Syrian refugees in hosting countries and increase the number of refugees to settle. Despite all criticism made, this refugee deal was a new start between Turkey and the EU relations after a long pause. It needs to be revived.
Where should relations between the two forces pass and also within the Mediterranean?
There are several issues that can only be tackled through cooperation between Turkey and the EU. Cooperation is needed and urgent on some issues like refugee, terror, energy, economy etc., which have a great impact in the Mediterranean region. Turkey’s half-century long journey towards the EU will continue as long as the EU is honest and clear towards Turkey. After the referendum that will be held on Sunday, Ankara is preparing for sending its last proposal related to the visa liberalization to the EU. The upgrade of the EU-Turkey trade relations through modernizing the Customs Union between the EU and Turkey was other issue besides visa-liberalization and stated at the EU-Turkey statement of 18 March 2016. The launch of negotiations to upgrade the Customs Union might be difficult under the current tension between the sides. Current accusations coming from both sides are not helpful in managing remaining positive agenda. Upcoming elections and leaders’ tones will determine the future of those issues, which have transnational effects and costs for both sides.
What can citizenship do?
There is an increasing demand to finding remedies for common problems and reconciling the differences. Building bridges is always harder than burning them. Increasing interaction between citizens and citizen diplomacy are important to prevent prejudice and biased views among the societies. Citizens of the Mediterranean need more opportunities that might provide a base for such an environment like Mediterranean Citizens’ Assembly Foundation (FACM).