EU Making `Big Mistake' in Turkey Deal, Kurdish Leader Warns

Selahattin Demirtas

Selahattin Demirtas

Photographer: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
  • Bloc sacrificing principles in exchange for help with refugees
  • HDP's Demirtas gives exclusive interview en route to Brussels

The European Union is making an historic mistake in its haste to conclude a refugee deal with Turkey, overlooking human rights violations that risk plunging the bloc’s largest membership candidate into civil war, said Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the nation’s most prominent pro-Kurdish party.

The EU is turning a blind eye to an opposition crackdown in Turkey that’s polarizing society and complicating efforts to find a political solution to the nation’s Kurdish conflict, Demirtas said in an impromptu interview en route to Brussels. European leaders are expected to ink an agreement with Turkey on Monday that will offer faster EU membership negotiations and visa-free travel in exchange for stopping refugees from crossing the country to enter Europe.

"The EU is trying so hard not to upset Erdogan, and that’s a big mistake," Demirtas said, referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "The world has gone very silent on what’s happening in Turkey, and that’s saddening and also short-sighted. If the war in Turkey continues like this, you’re also going to have refugees from Turkey."

Demirtas’s own experience show how fast things are changing. Less than a year ago, he was celebrating a momentous electoral result that marked him as a rising political star, dealing a blow to Erdogan’s attempts to concentrate more power in his office. But on Sunday night, sitting alone on the front row of a Turkish Airlines flight, Demirtas had a possible jail sentence on his mind.

Erdogan has called on parliament to strip HDP lawmakers of their immunity to try them for their links to the Kurdish PKK, considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and EU. PKK gunmen resumed their 30-year-old insurgency after the collapse of the political peace process last year. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Sunday that parliament would take up the subject after budget talks.

‘Remaking Society’

“There’s a very high risk it will happen,” said Demirtas, with a copy of “Remaking Society” by decentralization advocate Murray Bookchin perched on his armrest. “I don’t see this as a big risk for me personally. But for the country, it is.”

Demirtas was speaking two days after Turkish government trustees took over one of Turkey’s primary opposition newspapers in a dramatic raid that sparked clashes between protesters and police. The seizure reflects a broader intolerance of dissent that has also undermined the HDP, who are now largely excluded from mainstream media coverage.

“Of course this affects us,” Demirtas said. “We were a party on the rise, and now we can only try to protect our position.”

While markets have largely shrugged off the crackdowns, they’re a concern for longer-term investors, according to Nathan Griffiths, a senior emerging-market equities manager who helps oversee $1.2 billion at NN Investment Partners in The Hague.

‘No Exposure’

"Turkey is going very much in the wrong direction, with President Erdogan assuming complete power with limited checks and balances," Griffiths said by e-mail on Monday. “Long-term investors are best advised to have no exposure to Turkey."

The Turkish lira fell 0.6 percent to 2.9207 per dollar at 6:20 p.m. on Monday. The currency is little changed this year, following a 20 percent decline in 2015. Stocks gained 0.4 percent, extending their advance this year to 8 percent.

In meetings this week with the Party of European Socialists, of which the HDP is a member, Demirtas plans to urge his European counterparts to stick to their humanitarian principles and work toward ending the Kurdish conflict.

“They should play a mediator role between Turkey and the PKK,” he said. “The EU parliament could form a commission, and they could call for a cease-fire. Then the EU could lead a process of Turkish-Kurdish peace that would also ease Turkey’s EU membership process."

Legitimate War

That’s unlikely given that the EU also regards the PKK as a terrorist group, though Demirtas said there’s precedent for such a move. Davutoglu’s mediation in the Philippines helped to end the conflict with the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front, also widely recognized as a terrorist organization, he said.

“Because they see the PKK as a terrorist group, the EU thinks it also has to accept Turkey’s war on the PKK as legitimate,” he said. “But that’s a very wrong approach.”

Most European leaders are reluctant to get involved with Turkey’s complex domestic issues, instead focusing on the immediate goal of tackling the biggest flow of refugees since World War II, many of them fleeing Syria and Iraq and traveling by sea from Turkey to Greece.

That gives Turkey significant leverage.

On the same day that authorities took control of the Zaman newspaper, European Council President Donald Tusk, who was in Istanbul, tweeted a picture of himself with Erdogan in front of a pair of golden throne-like seats.

Political Moves

It was almost identical to a photo-op with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last year, which was around the same time that the EU agreed to Erdogan’s request to withhold a critical report on Turkish democracy until after the general election a few days later.

Such moves have generated opposition within the EU. Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands, called for the body to address rule of law and rights violations in Turkey, which she says have deteriorated even since Frans Timmermans, a European commissioner, agreed on a preliminary deal with Erdogan on asylum and migration late last year.

“Turkey won’t solve Europe’s problems” on refugees, Schaake said in a statement Monday. “Yet, the price of credibility and principles has been paid.”

Demirtas said there’s little cause for optimism in the short-term. If Turkey and the PKK continue their battles with no intervention toward a political truce, "a more widespread war awaits us in the months ahead," he said.

“The EU has no policy,” he said. “Instead of trying to dry the swamp, they’re fighting with mosquitoes. If instead they pushed for peace, the swamp would dry up."

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