Will Turkey’s Continued Human Rights Abuses Bar All Hope of EU Accession?

Photo Source: https://www.ctvnews.ca/world/turkish-protests-stretch-into-10th-day-pm-erdogan-calls-his-opponents-looters-1.1317730
Photo Source: https://www.ctvnews.ca/world/turkish-protests-stretch-into-10th-day-pm-erdogan-calls-his-opponents-looters-1.1317730


            Turkey has spent decades negotiating their admittance into the European Union (“EU”). The EU declared Turkey eligible to join in 1999 and formally began accession negotiations in 2005.[1] These negotiations have all but ground to a halt, and accession appears further away than ever. The basic criteria for which aspiring countries must meet to become eligible for EU membership is known as the Copenhagen criteria.[2] The terms are simple, “Any European State which respects the values referred to in Article 2 and is committed to promoting them may apply to become a member of the Union.”[3] The values referenced in Article 2 are as follows:

The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.[4]

Recent reports indicate that Turkey has opted for regression instead of progression regarding these democratic values. The United States has reported the Turkish government is continuing to engage in severe human rights abuses. A short list of these abuses include arbitrary killings, forced disappearances, torture, use of child soldiers, prosecution of political dissidents, gender-based violence, and crimes of violence targeting members of national/racial/ethnic minority groups.[5] The EU acknowledged similar concerns regarding Turkey’s backpedaling on the democratic values required for accession in their recently published Türkiye 2022 Report.[6] The report covered the period from June of 2021 to June of 2022.[7] It noted “serious deficiencies in the functioning of Türkiye’s democratic institutions” and that “democratic backsliding continued.”[8] There was a continuation of “[s]erious backsliding regarding civil society issues.”[9] Turkey’s judicial system and respect for human and fundamental rights received marks for “backsliding” as well.[10]

The most pressing concern is Turkey’s recent withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, which was the worlds’ first international treaty specifically designed to combat violence against women and girls.[11] The withdrawal went into effect July 1, 2021.[12] The EU acknowledges the severe ramifications for gender based progress this will have in the Türkiye 2022 Report, “violence against women and gender discrimination remained matters of grave concern, in the aftermath of Türkiye’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention.”[13] In addition, “Sentences for gender-based violence remained low and incapable of providing an effective deterrent, and the culture of impunity remained unaddressed.”[14]

EU members are fully aware that Turkey has reversed course on the advancement of human rights. This leaves them with a difficult choice to make. They can reward Turkey with accession into the EU despite the glaring human rights abuses, after which they can attempt to rectify the abuses within the EU framework. They can deny Turkey’s application and attempt to rectify the human rights abuses outside the EU framework. Or they can continue the decades-long negotiation process which has yet to substantively progress human rights in Turkey.   

Admittance to the EU is unrealistic as allowing Turkey to join given its current human rights abuses would taint the democratic principles which the EU rests upon. Denial of Turkey’s application would close pre-existing channels of communication and has the potential to sour international trade agreements. This leaves EU members with the third alternative, to continue negotiations with Turkey for the foreseeable future without making any tangible progress in advancing human rights. The justification for this choice is simple, the continuation of commerce. The EU is Turkey’s largest trade partner, while Turkey is the EU’s 6th largest trading partner.[15] In addition, the EU is the main source of investments into Turkey.[16] The negotiations allow Turkey to have one foot planted in the EU’s single market, reaping the economic benefits which come with such access. The amount of trade between Turkey and the EU in 2020 was €132.4 billion.[17] The other foot is planted on the opposite side of the fence with regard to the EU requirements for a functioning democracy and progressive human rights. This has allowed Turkey to ignore the findings of human rights violations by the European Court of Human Rights without having to suffer any serious repercussions.[18]

Given the current Global economic instability, the EU is unlikely to impose sanctions for human rights violations or risk disrupting trade with one of its largest trading partners. Therefore, the EU will continue feigning negotiations with Turkey to keep the flow of international trade steady. This is a win for consumers and corporations in both Turkey and the EU. However, victims of Turkish human rights abuses will continue to lack the institutional protection afforded to citizens of an EU State. Until the Turkish government adopts the democratic values embodied by the Copenhagen criteria, Turkey’s accession into the EU is hopeless.

[1] European Commission, European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Türkiye, https://neighbourhood-enlargement.ec.europa.eu/enlargement-policy/turkiye_en.

[2] European Union, Principles, countries, history, Joining the EU, https://european-union.europa.eu/principles-countries-history/joining-eu_en.

[3] Consolidated Version of the Treaty on European Union art. 49, June 6, 2016, 2016 (C 202) 43.

[4] Consolidated Version of the Treaty on European Union art. 2, Oct. 26, 2012, 2012 (C 326) 1.

[5] U.S. Dep’t of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2021, Turkey 2021 Human Rights Report, at 1-2 (2021).

[6] See European Commission, Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations, Commission Staff Working Document, Türkiye 2022 Report, Accompanying the document Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions 2022 Communication on EU Enlargement policy, Oct. 12, 2022, SWD/2022/333 final.

[7] Id. at 4, n.3.

[8] Id. at 4.

[9] Id. at 5.

[10] Id. at 5-6.

[11] Turkey’s withdrawal from Istanbul Convention a setback for women and girls’ human rights, Int’l Comm’n of Jurists (Jan. 7, 2021), https://www.icj.org/turkeys-withdrawal-from-istanbul-convention-a-setback-for-women-and-girls-human-rights/.

[12] Id.

[13] Supra note 5, at 24.

[14] Id.

[15] European Commission, EU trade relationships by country/region, Türkiye, https://policy.trade.ec.europa.eu/eu-trade-relationships-country-and-region/countries-and-regions/turkiye_en.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] See supra note 5, at 6.