While inaugurating a new high-speed train station in Ankara recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced to raucous supporters, chanting “we want the death penalty,” that his government is bent on reinstating capital punishment retroactively to execute those behind the abortive coup attempt in July. “Soon, our government will bring (the bill) to Parliament… It’s what the people say that matters, not what the West thinks,” Erdogan said to the crowd.
Reestablishing the death penalty would eliminate the possibility of becoming a European Union member state, something Turkey has been seeking for decades. “Thumbing his nose” at the EU, Erdogan’s statements prove that vengeance is more important to him than admission to the union, something he had pursued since he was first elected Prime Minister in 2003.
“It would immediately trigger a huge problem with the Council of Europe, which Turkey is a part of, and the EU,” Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank headquartered in Washington, told The Media Line. “This would shut off the accession negotiations with the EU.”
The Republic of Turkey, which just celebrated its 93rd anniversary, is a country straddling both Asia and Europe with 95 percent of its population practicing Islam. The country has been an associate member of the EU since 1963 and officially applied for accession in 1987.
According to Esra Özyürek, an associate professor in contemporary Turkish studies at the London School of Economics, Turkey has wanted to join the EU since it was first established as a trade organization in the 1960s because, after World War II, the country wanted to ally itself with the capitalist world. “Turkey has always wanted to join the West and to be part of the family of Western nations,” David Kushner, a professor at Haifa University told The Media Line.
Membership to the EU would bring both political and economic benefits to Turkey.
“Economically, they would be able to trade freely and Turks would be able to freely circulate in the EU because it is a great labor market,” Özyürek said. “For many people, it would (also) guarantee political rights and freedoms.”
First created in 1950 as a means of uniting war-torn Europe, the EU, officially established in 1993, is a group of European countries that are politically and economically tied to one another. Currently there are 28 member countries. To be considered for membership, a country must adhere to certain conditions, which include having a free-market economy, a stable democracy and accepting EU legislation. As part of this, a country may not practice capital punishment.
“Imposing the death penalty is incompatible with membership of the Council of Europe,” the Council of Europe tweeted after Erdogan’s announcement.
The Turkish government officially abolished the death penalty in July 2004, just as negotiations for membership to the European Union were ramping up. In 2004, when the EU accepted 10 new member countries, the European Commission agreed to hold negotiations to consider Turkey’s accession bid; however, those negotiations have been stalled since then as some member countries, like France, Germany and Cyprus, have blocked the possibility of Turkey’s accession – all member countries have veto power.
Over the years, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have become less keen on EU membership as joining the union would lessen Erdogan’s power in his own country.
“It wouldn’t make any sense for the AKP to reform more in line with EU policies because that would mean having to share power and the AKP has signaled that it would not share political power at all,” Roy Karadag, the managing director of the Institute for International Studies at the University of Bremen, told The Media Line.
The motivation to join the EU, as well as the belief that it will happen, has decreased since 2004. This trend escalated following the coup attempt which saw members of the Turkish military, allegedly supporters of the self-exiled cleric Fetullah Gulen, attempt to oust Erdogan in last July.
Since then, the president and his government have cracked down – arresting and detaining at least 100,000 of its citizens accused of having ties with Gulen. Most recently, the government fired some 10,000 government officials and arrested the editor-in- chief of an opposition newspaper.
The president originally announced his support of reestablishing the death penalty less than a month after the coup attempt; however, this is the first time he has announced that he is going through the legislation necessary to change the law. Retroactively reinstating the death penalty would, most likely, end EU accession negotiations.
“There is a massive shift to authoritarianism going on here and I think that speaks for itself,” Emma Sinclair-Webb, the Turkey Director for Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line.
With Erdogan becoming increasingly authoritarian over the past few years, European politicians as well as the political elite in Turkey know that there is almost no possibility of Turkey entering the EU.
“I would say that Erdogan does not need, or want, to enter the EU,” Karadag asserted. “He has become authoritarian and everything he and the party have done over the past eight years goes against any accepted notion of being democratic.”
Karadag added that Erdogan wants the ability to say that Turkey has done everything it could to be a democracy and to become an EU member state, including defending the country against the coup plotters. Erdogan believes that reinstating the death penalty does not mean that the country is betraying democracy or Western values.
The EU had planned to introduce visa-free travel for Turkish citizens by 2017; however, with the recent arrest of the editor-in-chief of a major newspaper and Erdogan’s statements about the death penalty, the Vice President of the European Parliament, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, was quoted saying “like this, nothing will proceed with visa-free travel.”
According to Sinclair-Webb, the possibility of the EU now accepting Turkey’s accession bid does not look too good. “We know that the bid is completely stalled and has been for a long time,” Sinclair-Webb said. “The complete crackdown (in Turkey) does nothing to revive the chances of the accession negotiations proceeding in a positive direction.”