Turkey and its Kurdish Issue: The European Union Factor

On 29 November 2015, the leaders of the European Union and Turkey made a statement reflecting their collective determination to reinvigorate the accession process and cooperate on foreign policy and security, including counter terrorism, trade and energy, as well as the Syrian refugee crisis. This statement came after years of stalemate in Turkey’s EU accession process, confirming the growing appetite by both sides to give life to the faltering process of accession negotiations, while at the same time continuing to upgrade their collaboration in selected policy areas. Although the implementation of this statement can potentially serve short-term and long-term interests on both sides to a great extent, it neglects the growing instability in the Kurdish areas of Turkey, as it has been evolving in the aftermath of the 7th June 2015 Turkish elections. The EU member states should be concerned that the exacerbation of the Kurdish issue can potentially not only destabilise Turkey further, but also feed into other crises that have been taking place at the same time in Iraq and Syria, and have catastrophic effects on the refugee crisis – a major worry for EU decision-makers.

Past steps towards cultural and political pluralism

The main challenge for any Turkish government of the past was to depart effectively from the matrix of a unitary and monolithic Turkish national identity that has been denying the ethnic and cultural identity of the Kurdish community in Turkey. Turkey’s designation as an EU candidate country in 1999 opened a window of opportunity for democratic reforms that could potentially address the Kurdish issue through political dialogue and negotiations. As a result of this process, there have been some developments in terms of recognising cultural rights for the community, such as university programmes in Kurdish in four universities and the right to electoral campaigns in languages other than Turkish, for which implementation began in 2013. However, as the European Commission’s latest report on Turkey reveals, “Legal restrictions on possibilities for mother tongue education in primary and secondary schools remained in place. Education in mother tongues other than Turkish is not allowed apart from in minority schools”.

Breaking the vicious cycle of militarisation

In the meantime, the ceasefire that had been observed as of 2013 by the Turkish government and the PKK, and which subsequently was followed by a peace process, has collapsed. The Turkish State and the PKK have been engaging in military clashes in the Kurdish areas of Southeast Turkey, especially in urban areas where thousands of civilians reside. The militarisation of the Kurdish issue is gradually dragging Turkey back to the security instability of the 1990s. It is demonstrated by Amnesty International’s recent warning that “the Turkish government’s onslaught on Kurdish towns and neighbourhoods, which includes round-the-clock curfews and cuts to services, is putting the lives of up to 200,000 people at risk and amounts to collective punishment”. It is therefore of the utmost importance that a ceasefire be announced immediately so that gradually the two parties can return to the negotiating table. Obviously, there is lack of trust between the two, as well as growing pessimism among the AKP establishment, the public and the PKK about the likelihood of a political solution in the foreseeable future. If this pessimism becomes a conviction, it will be very difficult to break the vicious cycle of militarisation of the Kurdish issue.

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The EU needs to engage – in its own interest

At this point, the EU needs to act swiftly with unity and determination in order to help reengage the two parties in a peace process that promotes democratisation, a decentralisation of power and a permanent end to acts of violence in Turkey. The EU strategies of influence, conditionality and socialisation must be employed effectively. In any other case, the EU will find itself in a much more precarious position: dealing with the ramifications of a war in the Kurdish areas of Turkey that is corroding any form of order in the area adjacent to Syria and Iraq. The overlap of areas that are suffering from conflicts and political fragmentation makes it even harder for the EU and the international community to deal with a continuous humanitarian catastrophe on the ground, resulting in more loss of life and displacement.

This op-ed was first published in The European Security and Defence Union Magazine.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent views of MERI.

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About MERI:  The Middle East Research Institute is Iraq’s leading policy-research institute and think tank. It is an independent, entirely grant-funded not-for-profit organisation, based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.  Its mission is to contribute to the process of nation-building, state-building and democratisation via engagement, research, analysis and policy debates.

MERI’s main objectives include promoting and developing human rights, good governance, the rule of law and social and economic prosperity. MERI conduct high impact, high quality research (including purpose-based field work) and has published extensively in areas of: human rights, government reform, international politics, national security, ISIS, refugees, IDPs, minority rights (Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabaks, Sabi mandeans), Baghdad-Erbil relations, Hashd Al-Shabi, Peshmarga, violence against women, civil society. MERI engages policy- and decision-makers, the civil society and general public via publication, focused group discussions and conferences (MERI Forum).

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