The reintroduction of the death penalty in Turkey: a red line issue for Brussels

Despite being legal until 2004, no death penalty has been carried out in Turkey since 1984. Prior to this date, detainees were usually executed by hanging during the frequent military coups d’état that have marked Turkey’s turbulent political history between the 1960s and the 1980s. When in 2004 Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) finally abolished it, the move was greeted not only as a symbol of a break from the days of military rule but also as a clear sign of Turkey’s aspiration to join the European Union. With the death penalty declared illegal, Ankara could finally open EU accession talks the following year.

However, as any observer can see, such negotiations have made little progress since then and have now reached a deadlock. The recent announcement twelve years later by the same ruling party to intend to restore the death penalty after the failed military coup attempt occurred in July has caused great stir across Europe. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker declared that if Turkey should bring back the death penalty, we will immediately stop the negotiation process, since banning the capital punishment is one of the basic condition for joining the European Union. Tensions with the EU have been escalating in the last few months when Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed that he would sign the death penalty back into law if it was approved by the Turkish parliament. “Democracy is respecting people’s will. If the people say ‘we want the death penalty’ and this goes to parliament and parliament passes it and it comes to me, I declare I will approve this”. Tensions with the EU have been escalating in the last few months when Turkish president Recep Tayipp Erdogan claimed that he would sign the death penalty back into law if it was approved by the Turkish parliament. “Democracy is respecting people’s will. If the people say ‘we want the death penalty’ and this goes to parliament and parliament passes it and it comes to me, I declare I will approve this”.

Despite repeated warnings about the immediate consequence of restoring the death penalty in Turkey, the EU actually relies on Ankara’s cooperation in coping with its worst refugees’ crisis since World World II and therefore it has no intention to deteriorate already delicate relations with the Turkish country. On 18 March, Ankara and Brussels signed in fact a deal to halt the flow of migrants to Europe, an agreement that has largely been successful in reducing numbers crossing the Aegean Sea. Under this agreement, one Syrian refugee from a Turkish camp will be admitted to Europe for each irregular migrant sent to Turkey from Greece. In return, the EU has guaranteed to open negotiations on Turkish membership and to offer visa-free travel for Turks, as well as around € 3bn in aid to Turkey to help migrants.

In this context, the potential restoration of the capital punishment is definitely a red line issue for Brussels that would officially cancel Turkey’s EU accession plans and would overturn the migration deal negotiated between Ankara and Brussels. Such a development would be seen as a disaster in Brussels, with European officials fearing that a failure of the deal could once again spark a mass migration of people from Turkey towards Greece.

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