The European Union (EU), as an international body, does not have a long history with Kurdish issues compared to world powers such as the United States, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom. The first time the EU engaged with the Kurdish question was in the late 1980s. Between 1989 and 1994, the European Parliament passed a series of resolutions of unanimous support for Kurds in northern (Turkey) and southern (Iraq) Kurdistan. In the south, Saddam’s regime used chemical gas against the Kurds. In Turkey, military rule, which came to power in a coup d’état, followed a policy of fire and iron against the Kurds. These two events, one a genocide and the other a steady massacre, introduced the Kurdish cause to the Europeans.
Marlies Casier, a Belgian analyst who has studied the Kurds, says these two events “had an impact on the conscience of Europeans.” Thus the Kurdish question was known as a humanitarian issue in European political and public circles. The European Court of Human Rights issued a series of lawsuits against the Turkish state and the European Parliament, through its decisions, gave a set the humanitarian discourse in a political frame.
But has the EU stayed focused on the humanitarian agenda or has it also developed a political approach to the Kurdish question in Turkey? Does the European Union have a political interest in the Kurdish question?
The solution to the Kurdish question is a matter of principle for Europe
From a European point of view, the Kurdish question is a living and clear example of Turkey’s socio-political reality and at the same time is the result of a policy of “state racism” in which the rights of minorities are violated. No country can become a member of the European Union when it does not have the will, or the ability, to secure fundamental human rights, including the rights of minorities. This is a strict principle for a normative humanitarian body like the European Union. When the question of Turkey’s membership once again came up in the early 1990s, the EU started to take steps to address the Kurdish question as a minority issue in the country. From there, the EU’s dealings with the Kurdish question officially started.
Beyond principle, the Kurdish question as a political card
In 1993, the European Union developed the Copenhagen criteria, giving a political and legal framework for dealing with the Kurdish question and making it an important issue in Turkey-European Union relations.
Here we need to separate the rhetoric from the political goals of the European Union. Europeans use a humane and secular discourse in their dealings with the Kurdish question. In annual reports of both the Parliament and the European Commission, the situation of Kurds is cited as examples of human rights violations and rights of minorities. However, the EU, as an external party, has not made any direct efforts at conflict resolution nor has it raised the Kurdish question in its talks with Turkey. In two rounds of intense negotiations with Turkey, in 1991 and 2005, the European Union did not raise the Kurdish issue, despite Ankara pursuing reforms, making it an optimum time to find a solution to the Kurdish problem.
From the EU’s point of view, the Kurdish question needs to be resolved before Turkey can accede to the union. This is not for the Kurds’ or Turkey’s sake, but because it is in the interests of the European Union itself, which does not want to import socio-political and armed conflicts. But how much does the EU really want Turkey to join the union?
A widespread view in academic circles and among analysts is that the EU has never been in favor of Turkey’s membership. It has imposed preconditions that have had no effect other than disappointing Turkey. There may be an exaggeration in this view, as the process itself is encouraging a closer approach and the harmonization of a number of questions of democracy and the state in Turkey that were strategically beneficial to Ankara. In addition, it was the prospect of membership that led Turkey to openly address the Kurdish question and make some constitutional reforms that were in the interest of the Kurds, such as the abolition of the death penalty and the restriction of military power. So the process wasn’t detrimental for Turkey or the Kurds.
But when referring to the EU as a humanitarian body that wants to resolve the Kurdish question, it is necessary to take into account the fact that while the EU did not have a real desire for Turkey’s membership, it might have been in the EU’s interest to keep the Kurdish question as a political card against Turkey to obstruct its accession.
Beyond Turkey’s EU membership
In addition to its importance in the context of the membership process, from a European point of view, the Kurdish question is important as a factor for achieving stability in a neighboring country. The core power of the European Union is its economic position. It is, therefore, in the interest of the European Union to have stability beyond its borders to encourage the free movement of goods, capital, and services.
Geopolitically, Turkey is of great importance and value to Europe and has become a corridor for natural gas. Natural gas is a strategic commodity that is a source of geopolitical tensions in the region. The Kurdistan Region has emerged as player in the oil sector and European countries are seeing the value in Kurdish oil. In exporting and marketing Kurdish oil, northern Kurdistan [Turkey] plays a duel role, both as a “saboteur” and as a “builder” and the European Union has considered it important that the Kurds of northern Kurdistan have representatives in Turkey’s domestic political processes. The EU aims to play a constructive role, as a factor in maintaining stability in the region.
The EU and Kurds in Turkey, now and in the future
The EU’s influence on the Kurdish question is still tied to Turkey’s membership, and the European Union has shrewdly used this as a political issue in its relations with Turkey. But Turkey’s membership process has stalled and, coupled with the immigration crisis, Ankara is not showing the same enthusiasm in joining the EU that it once had. So the Kurdish question may get edged out of the frame.
But this is not the end of the EU’s impact on the Kurdish question. The EU has shown its will to have ties with Kurdish entities in Turkey. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is on the EU’s terror list, is not an option for talks with Europe. The EU has put the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is in the parliament, at the forefront of its direct relations with Kurds. In addition, the European Union has constantly helped civil society organizations in northern Kurdistan. The EU sees these two parties – HDP and civil society organizations – as moderate entities who they can build relationships with.
In this regard, the EU may have two strategic goals. The first is to influence northern Kurds to play a constructive role in Turkey. The second is the use of the “Kurdish Question card” in the context of its relations with Turkey.
This is the first in a series looking at EU policies and interests in relation to the Kurdish question in all four parts of Kurdistan.
Zana Kurda is an expert in EU-Kurdish affairs, holding a PhD from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of IKHRW