What do Sweden and Finland’s applications for NATO membership mean for the future security of Kurds in these countries? Until now, Kurds living in Sweden and Finland have been safe from political persecution. And until now, these countries have supported Kurdish reconstruction projects in Rojava (northern Syria).
Any application for membership must be approved by all 30 NATO member countries, which of course also includes Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan quickly realised this, and also that he could use the applications of the two Scandinavian countries to join NATO for his own interests. Turkey is blackmailing NATO and will only agree to the accession of Sweden and Finland if they change their policy on the Kurds, no longer support projects in Rojava, prevent Kurdish political activities and hand over politically persecuted Kurds to Turkey. Twenty-eight NATO member countries have already agreed to their accession. Only Hungary and Turkey have not yet agreed. Currently, Erdoğan is shamelessly exploiting this position of power to violate international law and human rights.
Given this background, on the initiative of the International Kurdish Solidarity Collective, a conference was held in Helsinki on 27 October 2022 to discuss and evaluate the situation. Speakers were Gashaw Bibani (human rights activist/Finland), Ludo De Brabander (Vrede vzw/Belgium), Henrik Jaakkola (political officer of the Left Alliance/Finland) and Jürgen Klute (Former MEP and International Kurdish Solidarity Collective / Germany / Belgium).
Firstly, the speakers analysed and described the new situation. It became clear very quickly that the political situation for Kurds is difficult at present. Since a large part of Finnish society supports accession to NATO, a critical discussion about it is hardly possible. Critics of NATO accession are quickly labelled as friends of Putin because of the Russian war against Ukraine. The security interests of the Kurds are placed after Finnish security interests. In the short term, a change in the political situation is not to be expected.
However, the situation of the Kurds living in Sweden and Finland is not completely hopeless. Should the governments of the two countries actually comply with the Turkish government’s demands, this would not only violate European Union values, but also Finnish, Swedish and EU law as well as international law. Those affected are therefore allowed the possibility of defending themselves legally and applying to courts at national (constitutional courts), European (European Court of Justice) and international (International Court of Human Rights) levels. Solidarity groups must now strategically prepare for such cases in Finland and Sweden. For if it becomes necessary, they must act quickly.
Besides a pragmatic reaction of this nature to the shift in the political situation, there is another question on which to reflect. The political strategy of the Kurds in the last two decades has been based on Turkey’s application for membership of the European Union. At the EU summit in Helsinki in December 1999, Turkey was granted the status of a Candidate Country. Accession negotiations began in October 2005.
This opened up a new political opportunity for the Kurdish side. Accession to the European Union is linked to a series of political, economic and constitutional conditions. These conditions were formulated and defined at the EU summit in Copenhagen in June 1993., and are referred to as the Copenhagen criteria. Accordingly, the following conditions must be fulfilled by a candidate country:
– stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities;
– a functioning market economy and the ability to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the EU;
– the ability to take on the obligations of membership, including the capacity to effectively implement the rules, standards and policies that make up the body of EU law (the ‘acquis’), and adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.
According to these accession criteria, an end to the armed conflict between the Kurdish side and the Turkish government as well as a political solution to the conflict, respect for human rights and effective protection of minorities in Turkey were preconditions for Turkey’s admission to the circle of EU member states. The Kurdish side therefore linked Turkey’s accession to the EU with the prospect of recognition of their identity, language and political rights (self-determination). In principle, the Kurdish side therefore supported Turkey’s application for EU membership. However, Kurdish politicians criticised the fact that neither the Kurds, nor other minorities living in Turkey, nor civil society organisations were involved in the accession negotiations. Nevertheless, the accession negotiations offered the opportunity to put pressure on the Turkish government to emphasise the corrected Kurdish demands.
Respectively, Kurdish political activities were concentrated at the level of the European Union. The EU Commission monitored developments in Turkey. The European Parliament accompanies the accession negotiations with annual progress reports. In addition, the EU Turkey Civic Commission (EUTCC) was established in 2004. Since 2004, the EUTCC has organised an annual conference together with the European Parliament, focusing on a political-diplomatic solution to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Until 2013, when Abdullah Öcalan announced in a Newroz message written in prison that the Kurdish side would end the armed conflict and that Kurdish demands for autonomy rights would only be negotiated through political means, it appeared that this strategy would be successful.
But then, from 2014 onwards, the situation changed. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unilaterally ended the peace process with the Kurds. At the same time, the process of accession negotiations between the EU and Turkey stagnated. The conservative forces in the European Parliament, but also heads of government like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, were hostile to Turkey’s accession to the EU. In their view, Turkey, which is dominated by Islam, does not belong to the EU, which is dominated by Christianity. Moreover, Erdoğan was increasingly turning Turkey into a dictatorship that was less and less in line with the Copenhagen criteria – especially the criterion of the rule of law. Admittedly, the accession negotiations have not officially been stopped so far. But from both sides there is currently no longer any serious interest in Turkey’s accession to the EU.
The politico-strategic approach of peacefully resolving the conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurds within the framework of the accession negotiations and granting the Kurds the rights to which they are entitled had thus lost its basis.
The Ukraine war and the resulting application by Sweden and Finland for NATO membership have now put Erdoğan in an even more favourable position. The EU member states, who are mostly members of NATO, currently have little chance of exerting political pressure on Erdoğan to comply with international law and human rights with regard to the Kurds. Because in the conflict with Russia, NATO will do everything to keep Turkey as a partner in its lines.
This means that the political strategy pursued for many years of solving the Turkish-Kurdish conflict politically and diplomatically within the framework of the EU accession negotiations no longer works because of the changed balance of power. It is time to develop a new strategy to replace this old one. It must broaden its focus from the EU level to the international level and to the member state level and also to the regional and local level.