Dutch PM Rutte con-gra-tu-lates Erdogan

The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, was in Turkey last week with a business mission. We, Dutch journalists in Turkey, were invited to have a chat with him, and with the brand new Minister of Foreign Trade (the new government was installed recently, but Rutte lead the previous government as well). Rutte also had a meeting with PM Erdogan, and of course we wanted to know more about it. A colleague of mine brought up human rights. Of course, Rutte said, he brought that up. But to be honest, I am still flabbergasted by the way he did it.

Of course, Rutte said, I told the Turkish Prime Minister that we are concerned about human rights. But, he said with a happy serious face: ‘I also congratulated the Turkish Prime Minister on the fact that Turkey will allow Kurdish as an official language in court rooms.’ I brought up press freedom, but no, that wasn’t discussed. ‘But it’s a very important issue, there are many journalists in jail’, I tried again. True, Rutte said, but of course, you can’t raise every subject.

Gestures and an intonation

So, time was limited, I understand that. But then, of all the human rights subjects he could have brought up, he chose to congratulate Erdogan on a step he is taking in the Kurdish issue that hasn’t even been taken yet. Let that sink in for a minute.

While there have been at least 700 Kurdish prisoners (mostly political prisoners) on an indefinite hunger strike for almost two months now demanding basic human rights, while Erdogan doesn’t even acknowledge there is a hunger strike, while the government again focuses mainly on a military ‘solution’ to the Kurdish issue, while children of this country die (both soldiers and PKK fighters), while the arrests in the KCK case are going on, while there are dozens of journalists in prison, the Dutch PM decides to con-gra-tu-late Erdogan on a policy change that the Justice Minister mentioned but that hasn’t even been brought before parliament yet.

I can still picture Rutte’s face when he told us about the congrats. Raising his eyebrows, and using gestures and an intonation that suggested: let’s not forget that also good steps are being taken in the handling of the Kurdish issue. But he can say human rights were brought up, so he did his duty. I bet Erdogan laughed his ass off after Rutte left. Oh these Dutchmen, anything for trade!

A vaguely promised breadcrumb

I don’t know if Rutte is really this much out of touch with the realities of the human rights situation in Turkey in general and with the Kurdish issue in particular. Of course, it would be good if Kurdish were allowed in court rooms, but does he realize that this is how Erdogan fools the Turkish electorate? The reality is that such steps are like breadcrumbs to a hungry child that is entitled to have a full meal, but the government makes it seem as if a full meal was given and the child is still nagging. And, let’s not forget: the bill to allow Kurdish in court rooms (one of the demands of the people on hunger strike) hasn’t even been sent to parliament yet. It’s not a given, but a vaguely promised breadcrumb.

When I travel in the southeast of Turkey and I tell people I am from the Netherlands, I always get the question why the European Union isn’t raising its voice louder on the situation of the Kurds. I usually say (among other things) that the economic situation in Europe makes the continent more concerned about itself than about others and about human rights.

It would be great if Rutte just acknowledged that. If he just said: ‘Sorry, the Netherlands is in a bad economic situation, this is a trade mission, Turkey has economic potential for our companies, that’s why I’m here. Human rights are just not our priority now.’ Because that’s how it is. Bringing up human rights this way, actually congratulating Erdogan on how he handles the Kurdish issue and that way misusing the Kurdish issue for business and night sleep purposes, is even worse than not bringing it up at all.

Wait for justice two years longer

I read an interview in the “Radikal” paper this week with the head of the Constitutional Court, Hasim Kilic.The subject was a change in the constitution which makes it possible for citizens to bring a case to the Constitutional Court. I was wondering if he said anything about the capacity of the Court. Had they hired extra legal experts to be able to handle the extra cases coming their way? Nothing on that in the article. The mind-blowing reason given was: the Court already knows, says Kilic himself, that they can accept only 1 to 2% of the cases anyway. ‘Please don’t think of us as a court of appeal’.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has its hands full with Turkey. In terms of pending applications – I copy paste from this website – as of Jan. 1, 2010, the report found that Turkey has the second highest number of complaints lodged against it with 11 percent of the total 119,300 applications. (…) In 2009, Turkey had 4,474 applications in the court while the number was 3,706 for 2008 and 2,828 for 2007.

The idea was that by making the Constitutional Court accessible for citizens, the case-flow from Turkey to the ECHR would go down, because you can only apply to the ECHR when you have gone through the full legal process in your own country. By adding a step to the domestic legal path, more people would – ideally – find justice inside Turkey’s justice system and would no longer feel a need to go to Strasbourg.

Kilic says in the interview that the Constitutional Court doesn’t expect all that many applications from citizens because the lower courts are expected to deliver better outcomes. I repeat: the lower courts are expected to deliver better outcomes. Got that? He expects lower courts to deliver better outcomes. Makes sense, when you see (above) that the applications from Turkey to the ECHR are only going up. And no, the Turkish state doesn’t win most cases, so it’s not that Turks just love fighting legal battles: between 1959 and 2009 2,295 judgments were entered for Turkey and only in 46 cases did the court find no violations of the European Convention on Human Rights (info from the same website).

But several judicial reforms have been made in Turkey, right? So maybe it’s realistic that Kilic expects improvements? No, it isn’t. Because making legal reforms is one thing, implementing them is another. Let me quote Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, who evaluates judicial change in Turkey. After elaborating on several changes at the beginning of this year, he closes his evaluation by saying:

Finally, the Commissioner would like to reiterate his view that some of the most serious human rights violations in Turkey emanate from the interpretation and application of the Turkish legislation by judges and prosecutors. Thus, the actual impact of even those amendments which the Commissioner considers positive, would very much depend on the practical implementation made by the Turkish judiciary of the amended legislation.

I’m not sure what Hammarberg considers ‘the most serious human rights violations in Turkey’, but I reckon they are for example the violation of the right to life (read about an example here) and the right to a fair trial within a reasonable time-frame. The ECHR in 2011 ruled six times that Turkey had violated the right to life, thirty times the right to a fair trial and 53 times the right to a trial within reasonable time. In the whole of 2011, 174 judgements were made on Turkey (check the stats here).

Now that the domestic legal path has been lengthened, it will for some time not be possible for Turks to apply to the ECHR. For two years, to be precise, says Mr Kilic. So for at least two years, Turkey’s goal will be reached: the number of applications from Turks to the ECHR will drop dramatically.

But summing everything up, I see no reason whatsoever why after these two years, the number of applications from Turks will stay low. After September 2014 the number will rocket up again, re-starting the good old competition with Russia for the highest number of cases. The result, in short, is that people will simply have to wait for justice two years longer. And then see that Turkey doesn’t really care about the judgement of the ECHR anyway – but let me not get into that again. It’s mind blowing when you think of it: imagine the handling of your court case takes too long, you want to go to the ECHR for it but now the Turkish system makes you wait two more years!

Maybe the ECHR can do some catching up on their own falling behind in these two quieter years ahead. So that when the flow from Turkey starts coming again, they can start providing justice to Turkish citizens again as soon as possible. Somebody has to do it.

The foundations Cornelis laid

The bottom line is: Turkey and the Netherlands are friends. Officially since 400 years ago, but in practice even much longer. No temporary political wind can change that. According to Jan-Paul Dirkse, the Dutch ambassador to Turkey, all you need to do is look at the map: ‘Then you see that we are in the same sphere. It makes it very obvious: Turkey and Europe should join forces in as many fields as possible.’

I talked to the ambassador at what you could call the unofficial kick-off of the 2012 celebrations. In December 1611 Cornelis Haga left the Netherlands overland to, probably, Venice, from where he would take a boat to Constantinople. The trip took five months – not because he was travelling by bike but because he made stop-overs on the way at other Dutch representations.
Once he arrived in what was at the time the richest and most vibrant city in Europe, Cornelis had to wait some months before he got to meet the Sultan to officially establish ties between the Netherlands and the Ottoman Empire. In 2012, that historic event will be celebrated extensively with many economic and cultural activities, and with an official visit from President Gül to the Netherlands.

Civil servant

Some circles in the Netherlands are not too happy about celebrating the 400 years of diplomatic ties between the Netherlands and Turkey, and about Presidents Gül’s visit. For political gain, they picture Turkey as a potential Islamic threat. I asked ambassador Dirkse his opinion about this, but of course he is not a politician but a civil servant, so he replied: ‘I’m being paid to reconcile, not to contribute to controversy.’
As a journalist, I might find that reaction somewhat disappointing, but of course this stance can only be supported. It’s actually the same as the approach of the Turkish government. On several occasions I have tried to get some reaction from Turkish government representatives about the current political atmosphere in the Netherlands, but they are always wiser than to become emotional. They don’t give any importance to anybody who deliberately wants to screw up good relations. However irritating it must be for them to be pictured as ‘the great Islamic threat’, they apparently at some point wisely decided to ignore racist, ill-intentioned Dutch politicians. I heard Mr. Davutoglu, Foreign Affairs Minister of Turkey, say, some months ago: ‘We only deal with the Dutch government, and our relations with the Dutch government are very good.’

Ignoring certain politicians, however, is something else than ignoring a sentiment that is alive in Dutch society. A fear of Islam, a fear of losing Dutch identity because of the influence of other cultures. The celebrations that are about to begin could contribute to reducing the fear of Islam and, more specifically, the fear of Turkish culture. ‘I don’t know what you thought about Turkey before you came here’, says ambassador Dirkse to me, ‘but weren’t you surprised about how Turkey is developing like crazy?’

Chauffeur

He talks about his driver, who recently went to the Netherlands to follow a special course for diplomatic chauffeurs. In the plane back from Amsterdam to Ankara, the chauffeur was stunned by his fellow Turks who had been living in Holland for decades and now returned to Turkey for a visit: it was as if he was looking into the past. Dirkse: ‘I have seen details of all the festivities that are planned for next year. Of course, they are partly aimed at people who are already sympathetic towards Turkey. But I hope, and expect, that the side effect of all the festivities will be that it will become more clear in the Netherlands that Turkey in 2012 is a totally different society than the one that Dutch people come into contact with in Holland.’
In other words: Turkey is no threat, Turkey offers possibilities with its young population and growing economy. Dirkse: ‘Of course, you have to be realistic, but if we manage to convince a few people, that’s already a success.’

He refers back to 1612. In those days, protocol was different: if you wanted diplomatic ties with a certain power, you had to get special permission to open an embassy, and once you got that permission, economic favours followed. Dirkse knows very well why Holland got those favours: ‘We had a lot to offer, but we were too small a country to be a threat.’

Web

I would like to draw a line from those days to now. The diplomatic ties that started in 1612, have over the centuries developed into a web of economic and cultural ties. Those ties are solid. They are actually so strong and contribute so much to the prosperity of both Turkey and the Netherlands, that nobody in his of her right mind would even consider putting that in danger. So because of the foundations that Cornelis Haga laid in 1612, huge and prosperous Turkey is not in any way a threat to The Netherlands now.

Not yet convinced? Then please be open to the message in 2012!

Visa balance

For decades foreigners who wanted to live in Turkey could do so without ever getting a residence permit. All you had to do was go abroad and return to renew your tourist visa every three months. But Turkey has had enough of it and they have changed the rules: a tourist visa will now be valid for ninety days within a period of 180 days. So now if you want to stay in the country longer, you have to buy a residence permit.

The new Turkish rules are of course mainly a way for the state to generate income, but they show Turkish confidence too: it’s worth living in this country, so we want you to pay more for it than only four times the price of a tourist visa (a total of 60 euros per year).

It’s even more interesting in light of the possibly soon-to-change visa rules for Turks who want to travel to Europe. Many Europeans don’t know this, but it is very hard for Turks to cross the European border. Even to get a visa to go on a city tour or family visit is a total pain in the ass. You have to get a whole set of official documents (including for example ownership papers of a house or a car or anything else valuable, and papers that prove the company you work for is officially registered, etc etc) and even if you comply with all the rules, a tourist visa can be turned down for no apparent reason.

Add to that the humiliating way Turks are treated at any visa section of any European country, and you understand why Egemen Bagis, Minister of EU Affairs, recently said: ‘The moment when our citizens feel the least European is when they wait for hours in visa queues to go to Europe.’

The anticipated change will make it easier for Turks to travel to Europe. Once Turkey signs the ‘readmission agreement’ (an agreement dealing with the handling of refugees using Turkey as a base to get to the European Union) then visa restrictions for Turks will be loosened. The first groups benefiting from that will be business people, students and artists. Then other groups will follow. It’s not even a political discussion anymore, only the technical details have to be discussed.
You may find that strange, but there are just deals to hold on to and rules to be followed. For example, Turkey had to introduce biometric passports, which was done earlier this year. The readmission agreement is also part of the deal, so once Turkey has complied, the matter is settled.

I have heard some foreigners living in Turkey complain about the obligation to get a residence permit. That pisses me off a bit. Getting the residence permit itself is not so difficult, it’s mainly a matter of having enough money in your account to support yourself. Nothing compared to what a Turk needs to do to even go on a weekend trip to Paris. Please, I would like to say, realize how totally blessed you are with your European passport that takes you over practically every border around the world with no trouble whatsoever. The new rules on both sides are a first step towards some balance between the rights of European and Turkish citizens.

The EU as Turkey’s dietician

I’d like to predict some news, possibly for the end of 2013 or beginning of 2014. By that time, Turkey will have fulfilled all requirements necessary to become an EU member – at least that’s what Egemen Bagis, Minister for EU Affairs, said last night at a dinner with journalists, which I attended. But then, Turkey could also reach its goal without actually becoming a member. Thank you, Turkey might say, for keeping us on track towards meeting EU standards, but now we are really better off on our own.

No, of course Bagis didn’t say anything like that literally. But between the lines it is suddenly pretty obvious to me. He stressed several times that for Turkey the road towards EU membership is more important than the actual goal. And when I asked what Turkey would actually gain from EU membership, he said you could see the EU as Turkey’s dietician: ‘It is nice to sit in front of the TV having ice cream, but if you know it’s better for you to be running on a treadmill, its good if somebody keeps reminding you and encouraging you to exercise.’ Think a bit further along that line: if you have finally changed your life style, are in shape and at a healthy weight, would you still use your dietician? Or would it cost more than it’s worth?

It’s remarkable that Bagis didn’t point out any positive thing about actually being an EU member. And can you blame him? Turkey has total freedom now in its policy on foreign affairs. It has good ties with the EU (yes, still!), it can have ties with countries that the EU could never be so close to (Syria, Iran), it can lift visa restrictions with any country it likes in order to boost Turkey’s economy without needing anyone’s permission.

And that sure adds grist to Turkey’s mill. First, Turkey plays an independent and increasingly important role on the international diplomatic stage. There will be nothing left of that if they become an EU member. The open borders with for example Syria and Lebanon would actually be considered a problem, and visa restrictions with those countries might even have to be re-introduced. Turkey would all of a sudden be part of a block that in the end doesn’t play a role of any importance on the world stage. They would improve their position by Turkey joining them, but that would be Europe’s gain, and Turkey’s loss.

Turkey’s economy is recovering from the global economic crisis very quickly and is already growing again at around ten percent. The EU economies are struggling to even grow at all. There is a fear among Europeans that Turks might flood Europe once there is free movement of persons and no restrictions on working in any European country, but could it actually be Turkey has more to fear? The growth and future potential of Turkey’s economy has been compared to that of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), and Turkey is so close to Europe, or if you like, a part of it, that it’s not inconceivable that Europeans one day will flood Turkey like a tsunami in search of greater prosperity. Does Turkey need all those workers? No: Turkey’s population is huge and young (72 million, average age 27), so Turkey can very well make it on its own.

I can only imagine the self confidence Turkey must feel if one day they say ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ to EU membership. But it will not happen at the end of 2013 or beginning of 2014. Bagis said rather confidently that at that time Turkey will be ready, but to me he seemed not to take Turkey’s problems very seriously. His answers to relevant questions regarding the path towards the EU were not answered in a satisfying way. Minority rights? Journalists in jail? The very slow, if any, progress in solving the Kurdish question? All Bagis did was ask counter questions, make a joke, or point out that it was all so much worse ten to thirty years ago. If only once he had shown that he actually really cared about groups and individuals that face serious problems due to a lack of democracy, and how damaging it is for Turkey.

Then again, by reacting this way, he also showed very clearly that Turkey does indeed need a ‘dietician’. The changes in life-style have for sure not sunken in yet. It’s like joking about eating ice cream while lying flat on the couch watching TV, sticking your head in the sand about the fact that when some organs don’t function properly anymore, it undermines the healthy functioning of the whole body.