The International Conference on the European Union, Turkey, the Middle East and the Kurds organised by the European Union Turkey Civic Commission (EUTCC) kicked off on Wednesday with discussions on the current state of democracy in a post-election Turkey, and continues on Thursday with a look back into the origins of the current conflict at the beginnings of the Republic of Turkey.
The conference, 18th of its kind hosted by leftwing groups in the European Parliament, brings together European and Kurdish scholars, policymakers, journalists, politicians and activists on its platform for comprehensive discussions from a diverse range of perspectives.
EUTCC Chair Kariane Westrheim called for the removal of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) from the EU terrorism list in her opening speech on Wednesday, arguing it would create space for peaceful reconciliation.
Westrheim said a lasting peace, which the European Parliament has also called for, would only be possible through negotiations with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. For this reason, the absolute isolation from the outside world in the İmralı island prison should end, she said.
In an earlier interview with Medya Haber TV, the EUTCC chair said the conference had been an important tool in the monitoring of developments in Kurdish issues.
“At the start, in 2004, we couldn’t even mention the name Abdullah Öcalan or the PKK,” Westrheim said. “Today, these are broadly debated both in the conference and in the media.”
European Green Left Group vice president in the EP, Greek politician Dimitrios Papadimoulis, also called for the delisting of the PKK, a new dialogue on peace, and European bodies to prioritise the law and human rights on their relations with the Turkish government.
Austrian MEP Andreas Schieder also gave a speech at the opening and said Öcalan’s freedom was “of symbolic importance” for the freedom of the Kurdish people.
The first session afterwards focused on the post-election situation in Turkey.
EUTCC Secretary General Michael Gunter said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had “tapped into the public’s insecurities”, and used the PKK to demonise the main opposition and its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who received wide support from both Turkish opponents of Erdoğan’s government and the Kurdish political movement and voter base in the May elections.
“Elections indicated that most Turks voted out of fear and based on identity issues rather than economic woes or corruption,” Gunter said, on how Erdoğan maintained his tenuous grip on power despite Turkey’s ailing economy creating dissent among the population.
Kurdish journalist İrfan Aktan added to Gunter’s point, saying the extreme polarisation had left no grey area in the country. “You either support the official ideology, or you support terrorists,” Aktan said. Another important nuance is that the binary applies to the opposition as well, according to the journalist, as many in the mainstream opposition are “as much against Kurdish rights as the government”.
Marginalised communities in Turkey have lost hope and are now angry at “even the prospect of hope”, Aktan said. The journalist also said the election loss has increased fear among the opposition, which has allowed militarist nationalism to become dominant.
The fear Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has unleashed affected not only Kurds but Europe itself, through refugee policies, Aktan said.
“How long can Europe keep funding authoritarian regimes to deal with this fear?” the journalist asked. “No matter how high you build your walls, this wave will eventually reach Europe. You wish to stem the flow of refugees, but this very fear increases the risk Europe faces.”
The only way to prevent waves of refugees heading to Europe would be for Turkey and neighbouring countries to become liveable countries, Aktan continued.
“If the EU had invested in peace [in Syria], we would have a different horizon today,” he said, pointing to the hundreds of thousands of people displaced from Kurdish held areas in northern Syria due to Turkish aggression and occupations, as well as the ongoing civil war.
Current trends include Turkey’s citizens fleeing the country as well, Aktan pointed out. “The EU accepts Kurdish refugees, but what it should do is to help Turkey’s democratisation so Kurds do not become refugees.”
On how the EU could contribute to a solution in the Kurdish issue, Çiğdem Kılıçgün Uçar, Democratic Regions Party (DBP) co-chair and MP in Turkey’s Parliament, said it would be possible to establish a Kurdish desk at the European Parliament.
While the EP issues a progress report on Turkey, it could place additional focus on a “Kurdish report” via an independent commission, she said.
“In the September progress report this parliament said false accusations had been used to arrest Kurdish politicians, and that the Kurds’ right to vote had been hindered,” Uçar said.
The Kurdish issue “can be resolved”, she added. “We have seen this before.”
Uçar called for the resolution of “the İmralı issue”, i.e. Öcalan being unable to communicate with the outside world for over two and a half years, and said Öcalan was the major actor who could play an essential role in peace talks.
For Turkey, a democratic nation and a democratic constitution is possible, she said.
“The Kurdish cause is a matter of human rights and international law, and should be a concern to all, like the Palestinian cause and the Ukrainian cause,” Swedish MEP Evin İncir said in her speech.
The Kurdish plight has not changed depending on who has held power in Turkey, İncir said. “Same goes for Iran, Syria and Iraq.”
The MEP, who was born in the largest Kurdish majority city in Turkey before resettling in Sweden, called on Turkey to change its constitution and recognise the diversity of ethnicity, religion and cultures among its population, respecting multiculturalism.
“If Kurds had not sacrificed their lives in the fight against the Islamic State, we would see a different Middle East and Europe right now. Europeans owe a lot to Kurds,” İncir said.
İncir added that the Kurdish political movement had not begun with a demand for independence or autonomy. “If Kurds were allowed to live in peace within Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, then independence might not have been an issue. But of course, any people would want an independent state when they were oppressed as the Kurdish people have been.”
Turkish writer and long-time supporter of Kurdish rights Aslı Erdoğan focused on the criminalisation of solidarity, and said non-Kurds had been punished for objecting to Turkey’s increased persecution of Kurds.
Speaking of the thousands of Kurds behind bars, Erdoğan said conditions in Turkey’s prisons “go beyond the Kafkaesque”.
“To call them Kafkaesque would be an insult to Kafka,” she added.
Turkey would give Russia a run for its money regarding the number of prisoners per capita, Erdoğan said. “On political prisoners, we top the charts. That has been the case since the establishment of the republic. The state is founded upon the remains of Armenians, Greeks, Kurds and others.”
The government in Turkey has been building new prisons, preparing for half a million prisoners, she added. “A majority of them will be Kurdish.”
Basque politician Lorena López de Lacalle, president of the European Free Alliance, said Turkey was a “dictatorship”.
“Where does [the Turkish state] make investments? In mosques and prisons,” she said. “How on earth is Europe still working with Turkey?”
De Lacalle said Selahattin Demirtaş, former co-chair of the now-defunct pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who has been behind bars since 2016, was imprisoned “only because he kept winning elections, and that the HDP was on the rise”.
While Kurdish activists and politicians speak about learning from Europe and about Western-led ideologies, de Lacalle said Europeans “have a lot to learn from Kurds”.
“You are a beacon of democracy for us,” she said, pointing to the radical experiment in self government in northeast Syria, which Kurds call Rojava.
“We speak a lot about democracy, but currently Europe is selling its own for very cheap,” she said.
The only way to stop the rise of the far-right in Europe is to work together, and build hope, she continued. “Between fear and hope, we must build hope as it springs into action, deterring inaction.”