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Deutschland Kurden demonstrieren in Köln
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Hitij

EU's PKK ban could undermine Turkish democracy

Sertan Sanderson
November 25, 2016

Kurds have been particularly hit by Turkey's post-coup purge which is silencing most opposition voices in the country. Instead of lending support to Erdogan's agenda is it time to rethink the ban on the PKK?


The non-binding vote by the European Parliament on freezing EU membership talks with Turkey has again raised tensions between Turkey and Germany. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday threatened to reopen borders to refugees looking to reach Europe - unless the EU rowed back on its criticism of his government. This prompted Berlin to warn the president not to continue making "threats." 

Erdogan also squarely dismissed the validity of Thursday's vote and accused Europe of using it as an excuse to harbor terrorists. 

"The simple fact that the European Parliament is taking such a vote shows that it protects terrorist organizations and stands by them," Erdogan said, claiming that the EU allowed the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) to operate across the bloc. His remarks followed charges from earlier in November, when he voiced the similar accusations directly at Germany.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed the halt of EU membership talks, saying the vote only served the purpose of protecting terrorist organizationsImage: Picture-Alliance/dpa/S. Sunat

"Germany is not keeping an eye on this well," Erdogan said on November 18, referring to PKK activities. "We gave them 4,500 files. Six of them were looked at. Terror will return like a boomerang tomorrow and hit Germany."

DW's Turkish service meanwhile learned from an anonymous source that the German embassy in Ankara has been in diplomatic correspondence with Turkey's ministry of foreign affairs, dismissing the claim of 4,500 PKK files being sent to Germany as false. The document reportedly warned the ministry that Turkey's rhetoric could cause harm in bilateral relations.

Passive support of Erdogan's purge

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also rejected Turkey's allegations, saying that Germany was strongly committed to fighting the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization across the EU. Merkel said that over the years German authorities had in fact opened legal proceedings against alleged PKK members in over 4,000 cases.

Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag
Among those arrested under the government crackdown are the pro-Kurdish HDP party leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Figen YüksekdagImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Suna

The chancellor also called to keep EU negotiations with Turkey open in order to allow for further dialogue - while acknowledging the mounting criticism against "alarming events" in Turkey. Merkel made the comment in reference to the Turkish government's crackdown on dissidents since the July 15 coup attempt, resulting in the arrest of top pro-Kurdish officials and the closure of many Kurdish media outlets.

Peer Stolle, a prominent lawyer who has defended Kurds in German courts, told DW that Germany's sustained support of Turkey in its persecution of Kurds against the backdrop of the government purge raised questions about its motivation:

"Is Germany now operating as Turkey's security contractor? Are all these court proceedings nothing but a favor as part of the refugee deal the EU signed with Turkey? Would that even be in line with the rule of law?" Stolle said.

Kurdish demonstration in Cologne
Kurds in Germany are free to hold political rallies - at the risk, however, of being suspected of supporting the forbidden PKK Image: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg

PKK ban a hindrance to peace

These are good reasons to rethink Germany's relationship with the PKK, according to Stolle. Above all, he highlights the limits that a PKK ban places on the scope of political involvement opportunities for Kurds living in Germany, saying this is a hindrance to resolving the conflict.

"Any type of political activity pursued by Kurds in Germany falls under a cloud of being related to the PKK. And being politically active can be enough to launch legal proceedings against people, often resulting in several years of imprisonment. These people effectively have no right to resist. The PKK ban makes it impossible to pursue a peaceful solution to the conflict," Stolle said. Turkey's president, however, wants to see harsher prosecution of PKK supporters in Germany with heavier sentences - regardless of how much it pushes the boundaries of the law.

Deutschland Deutscher Bundestag Abgeordneter Jan van Aken Die Linke
Die Linke parlamentarian Jan van Aken called for Germany to stop its support of Erdogan's regime, starting with the lifting of the PKK banImage: imago/Jens Jeske

"But no other EU state persecutes Kurds like Germany. Kurds have even been extradited to Germany from other EU states at the behest of the Federal Prosecutor's Office. The past few months alone saw eight different court proceedings across Germany against alleged PKK operatives."

Those who have been charged under German terrorism laws for their membership of the forbidden organization have felt the full brunt of the legal system. Ninety-three men and women have been sentenced since the movement was officially outlawed in Germany in 1994 - 10 years before a more recent ban came into force across the EU. PKK symbols and slogans are also forbidden in Germany.

Minority vs minority

Germany is home to an ethnic Kurdish population of almost 1 million - more than any other European country. Politicians are trying to balance the interests of that minority against those of the 3 million-strong Turkish population in Germany. More than 40,000 people have died since the onset of the PKK insurgency in Turkey more than 30 years ago, bringing the entire weight of the conflict to Germany and thus making it a domestic issue as well.

While some "Die Linke" (Left Party) parliamentarians in Germany have called for the ban on the PKK to be lifted after its leaders apologized for violent acts on German soil during the 1990s, Germany renewed the ban in April 2015 - a few months before the end of a ceasefire between Kurdish insurgents and the Turkish government.

Jan van Aken, an MP for Die Linke, is among those pushing for a repeal of the ban. In a tweet earlier in November, van Aken said that "words are no longer enough. Merkel has to withdraw support from Erdogan in practical terms as well. Stop weapons deliveries. Lift the PKK ban."

Rethinking the ban

Van Aken told DW that persecuting PKK members in Germany amounted to "nothing but political support" of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its objectives, especially under the ongoing purge:

"We don't even need to start speaking about the EU vote or the issue of sanctions on Turkey. The first thing is to stop cooperating with [Turkey's] AKP government. There's a massive amount of cooperation between Germany and Turkey especially in terms of security, and it needs to end," van Aken said.

Rolf Mützenich
The SPD parliamentary Deputy Chairman Rolf Mützenich publicly acknowledged the shifting appearance of the PKK, saying there was a chance for a reevaluation of the banImage: Imago

Some Social Democrats (SPD), Chancellor Merkel's coalition partner, have also voiced views in favor of reevaluating the status of the PKK in Germany - albeit not to the same extent as Jan van Aken. Senior SDP politician Rolf Mützenich said in 2015 that the PKK leadership had "set a new tone, providing a chance for a reevaluation of the PKK if it credibly continues to denounce violence on a sustained basis."

But the official stance on the PKK remains unaltered; the ban is not just a matter of supporting NATO-ally Turkey but also one of national security, with Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), stating that there are 14,000 active PKK members living in Germany who pose a domestic threat, having repeatedly clashed with Germany's ethnic Turkish population in the past.

"The German approach is actually the result of many years of strong cooperation between Turkey and Germany under the premise of the mutual protection of national security concerns," said Peer Stolle.

Belgium effectively lifts ban

In neighboring Belgium meanwhile, a Brussels court ruling from earlier in November 2016 said that PKK activities in Europe could no longer be deemed as terrorism against the backdrop of Turkey effectively being "at war" with its Kurdish population, therefore qualifying the Kurdish resistance as an armed conflict, at least in terms of the court's interpretation of international law. The PKK's close affiliation with "YPG" Kurdish peshmerga forces fighting the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) in Syria may also have helped in changing some of the perceptions on the Kurdish insurgents.

"The court ruling in Belgium will certainly have an influence on us in Germany as well. You just can't have such differing views on these kinds of conflicts within the EU," Stolle commented on the developments.

Perceptions of the PKK may slowly be shifting but they don't alter Germany's relationship with the organization nor are they likely to have any influence on Erdogan's regime. The issue of Turkey's EU accession talks possibly stopping may also have little impact, according to Peer Stolle:

"The prospect of Turkey's EU membership talks being suspended won't change much. The ongoing cooperation on the PKK between Germany and Turkey will continue regardless. Only further political pressure can bring about any change."

'Germany is encouraging terrorism'

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