Turkey's Increasing Presence in the Council of Europe: What should be the Next Step?

05/22/2015 02:02 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2016

Turkey has been a member of the Council of Europe (CoE) since 9 August 1949. When the CoE was an organization for a limited number of democracies in the 1950s, Turkey was one of the democracies on the Council. Although democracy in Turkey was interrupted by military intervention in 1960, the "half coup" in 1971, the military takeover in 1980 and the "postmodern coup d'etat" in 1997, Turkey achieved significant progress in cooperation with the CoE in areas such as abolition of the death penalty, the fight against torture, reform of prisons and detention houses, freedom of thought and expression, freedom of association and reunion, freedom of religion, functioning of the judiciary, civil-military relations, economic, cultural and social rights, and fighting against corruption particularly in the early 2000s. The impact of credible conditionality provided by the European Union since Turkey's declaration as a candidate state at the Helsinki Summit of 1999, is undeniable on this democratization and reform process.

Turkey's belief in the values of the CoE also reflected its increasing contribution to the CoE through its representation in significant positions in the organization. The founding member of the Justice and Development Party, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu joined the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in 2003 and was elected President of the Parliamentary Assembly for two years in 2010. Turkey assumed the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe for the seventh time on 10 November 2010.

During the Turkish chairmanship, priorities were given to reform of the CoE, securing the long-term effectiveness of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), strengthening the independent monitoring mechanisms of the CoE, facilitating the EU's accession to the European Convention on Human Rights and addressing the challenges of multicultural European societies. Moreover, the Turkish chairmanship offered assistance to the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in establishing a democratic transition process in the post-Arab Spring era. In this framework, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu, as Chairperson of the Committee of Ministers, visited Tunisia in February 2011, together with Thorbjorn Jagland, Secretary-General of the CoE.

Signals of the prospect of Turkey's increasing and continuing support to the CoE were given by the Foreign Minister of Turkey Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu when he expressed the desire of Turkey to be the sixth biggest contributor to the CoE on 7 January 2015. He expressed their desire to increase the amount that Turkey annually pays to the CoE from €13 million to €33 million which will make Turkey one of the main contributors. The Turkish delegation also requested the introduction of Turkish as a working language in the Assembly in addition to other working languages, Italian, Russian and German, and the official languages of English and French. The other request of the Turkish parliamentary delegation was to increase the number of seats allocated to it. Turkey has Europe's third-largest population. The allocation of seats in the Assembly between member states, which is based on population size of the countries, has not been adjusted since 1977.

The Committee welcomed the Turkish government's decision to support the strengthening of the CoE's capacities and resources by offering to become a major contributor to the Council's budgets from 1 January 2016. The Committee also supported the Turkish delegation's request to introduce Turkish as a working language in the Assembly. Moreover, the Committee agreed to increase the number of Turkish parliamentarians from 12 to 18 at the PACE. Hence, Turkey joined the delegations, which currently have 18 seats in the Assembly (France, Germany, Italy, the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom).

Turkey's desire to increase its presence and the role it plays in the Council of Europe, are important steps for the future of democracy and human rights in Europe and Turkey. As stated by Secretary-General Jagland at the Seventh Annual Ambassadors Conference in Ankara, "Increasing unemployment, racism, Islamophobia are huge threats for democracies." At the same conference Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu emphasized the importance of the CoE by stating that "at a time when Europe needs dialogue, mutual understanding and respect for diversity, the CoE should take a step forward." The main aim of Çavuşoğlu during the Turkish chairmanship was reinforcing the political role, visibility and relevance of the CoE. As Foreign Minister of Turkey, he indicated once more his efforts to empower the role played by the CoE.

What should be the Next Step?

Democracy is in recession almost all 47 member states of the CoE, including Turkey, today. A new impetus is urgently needed for the CoE in order to enable the organization to provide assistance to put its members' democracies back on track and to achieve its main role as the guardian of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Increasing coordination among the countries focusing on the shared values and rights stated by the Council has the potential to divert the countries' attentions to human rights and the rule of law, which have been neglected in recent years.

The new impetus might be provided by increasing the budgetary contribution, achieving further cooperation, and establishing a CoE for the MENA region, namely a Council of the Middle East and North Africa (CoMENA). The developments in the MENA region have already showed the necessity of freedom of expression, independent judiciary, security sector reform and abolition of death penalty to prevent radicalization. The negative impacts of developments on human security in the MENA and the increasing and unavoidable effect of these developments on the European continent make the establishment of such an organization vital. Turkey, the founding member of the CoE, has long experience with this values-based multilateral institution and the know-how and resources to undertake such institution-building, has a potential to become the pioneer country in this initiative. Turkey has already showed its willingness to increase the role of the CoE in solving rising problems in the MENA region. The MENA region needs urgent help and direction towards human rights rather than radicalization and extremism that has considerable impacts on Islamophobia and xenophobia in Europe.

The establishment of a CoMENA, might ease the path towards conciliatory approaches, which is urgently needed in the region. Maybe the next step that Turkey should take is to launch the establishment of a CoMENA that can give the countries of the region a destination for both their governments, expected to meet human rights standards, and their citizens, to provide a second chance to demand what they deserve as human beings.