Europe is squirming as Turkey grows increasingly more autocratic, but if Ankara were to re-instate the death penalty that would kill any chances of EU membership.
The European Parliament wants to freeze the "dishonest" membership talks with Turkey. "We wanted to visit the acting heads of the HDP in solitary confinement," Germany's MEP Social Democrat, Arne Lietz, said during a debate in Strasbourg, recalling his recent visit to Turkey. He was referring to Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, two of several party members arrested earlier this month. Lietz's delegation was blocked by police vehicles shortly before the jail close to the Bulgarian border, he said. "Police with assault rifles made it quite clear that we could not proceed," he said
"The new rounds of mass dismissals, closing of media organizations, banning of 375 NGOs – all government critics are in danger of being detained," Lietz said. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has swiftly shut down resistance from the military, destroying the country's balance of power, he added, concluding that Turkey was already a dictatorship. "All the signs are there."
Freezing membership talks
MEP Kati Piri, who sits on the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, tried meeting with Turkish government representatives last week in Ankara, but canceled the trip because the Turkish side was uninterested in speaking with her. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently received a similarly cold reception. Piri is now calling for a freezing of EU membership talks.
"I'm under no illusions," the Dutch Social Democrat said as to whether doing so would have any impact on Erdogan's course. However, there must be a European position on the detainment of 10 representatives, 155 journalists and dismissal of tens of thousands of public workers, she said. Lines of communication should remain open, but "continuing with membership talks is not credible when we see a complete deviation from democracy and rule of law."
Complete end to membership talks?
There is broad agreement across parties to suspend negotiations. But, Greens chair Rebecca Harms has called for some form of dialogue to remain, lest "we lose all bridges to Turkey."
Other MEPs find this position too lenient, repeatedly citing the laundry list of abuses and political persecution taking place in Turkey. "Negotiations have been deeply dishonest for years," said liberal MEP Alexander von Lambsdorff. His party's chair, Guy Verhofstadt, sees it as a matter of maintaining European credibility, which would be lost should the "illusion of membership talks with an increasingly authoritarian regime" continue.
EU governments against a freeze
The European Parliament may be resolute in freezing talks with Turkey, however, EU governments will not decide until a meeting in December. A statement by European Commission Vice President Federica Mogherini, who is also the EU's foreign affairs high representative, could offer insight into the EU stance. She warned that ending accession talks would spell the end of EU influence over Turkey.
Although "Turkey has been distancing itself for years from the EU," EU members have little desire to take drastic measures," said Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who is responsible for enlargement negotiations. "They want to stick with engagement."
In both the European Parliament and among EU governments, geopolitical considerations weigh heavily. Turkey is a NATO partner and crucial to Middle East stability. There is also the refugee deal to keep intact, despite many MEPs in Strasbourg arguing to cancel the agreement in favor of European values and a commitment to democratic rule of law. EU governments have reacted pragmatically, understanding that they are dependent on Erdogan regardless of how dictatorial he may become. The red line would be if Turkey reintroduced the death penalty. Since it is not allowed in the EU, that would almost certainly result in an immediate stop to accession talks.