Last week a founding EU Member State, France, suffered the indignity on receiving a lecture from the Turkish Government on fundamental human rights after its lower chamber of parliament approved a bill that, if passed into law, would make it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide. Fortunately, it seems unlikely to enter into law as it must both pass through the Senate and obtain the signature of the French President.
It is significant perhaps that the number of French parliamentarians voting on October 12th was not significant - 106 in favour and 19 against, meaning that there were 432 missing or unwilling to sign up to an absurd and reactionary law making it a crime not to recognise that a genocide of the Armenians had taken place in 1915. This gives us a clue as to the politics that lay behind the initiative.
Without entering into the debate on the veracity of the genocide claim, this law would clearly be a limitation on the freedom of expression and indeed on the freedom of research. One of its numerous perverse consequences would be to make it very difficult for academics in France to produce any independent research on the Armenian question. Equally absurd, is that an individual of dual Franco-Turkish nationality could be condemned in one country for denying the genocide and in the other for acknowledging it !
But there are two very serious issues at stake. The first concerns the ability of parliaments to determine the correct interpretation of history. This type of action is closer to a totalitarian system than of a State that has been so closely associated with the development of human rights and freedom of expression. And it is not the first time the French parliament is guilty of such behaviour. Only a few years ago it adopted a law which obliged all teachers to present colonialism in a positive light. It was later struck down, but only after strong public reaction.
The second point concerns the 432 missing parliamentarians who did not vote. Why was this ? If they thought, as many claimed, that the parliament should not interpret history - then they should have opposed the law, but only 16 did. My explanation is that the adoption of the law suited many of them as it further strengthened the already adopted law on the recognition of the Armenian genocide. And the purpose of this is to make the recognition by Turkey a pre-condition to EU entry.
In reality, the criteria for accession are already well known and no such additional criterion exists - nor should it. Indeed, if the recognition of past crimes had previously been a pre-condition for entry, many current member states would not have been able to join - including my own and France.
None of this excuses Turkey however. Rather the episode serves to highlight the illiberal nature and purpose of Article 301 in the Turkish penal code which makes it a crime to undermine the image of the country. Men in glass houses should not throw stones. This applies to all who criticise their neighbour. The French political class should understand that and so should Turkey.
It is less than a year since the now Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk’s case was thrown out of the Turkish courts. Article 301 continues as a blemish in EU-Turkish relations and will eventually, if unreformed, cause the accession negotiations to run into the sand. For those Turks who have so much criticised the French law, the best possible response to the French vote would be to delete article 301 and demonstrate that Turkey is moving in a positive direction, even as some French deputies seek to drag France backwards. Article 301 is a symbol of an older Turkey, not the modern, vibrant, open Turkey of today. It would be a grand and significant gesture that Turkey is serious about reforming its obsolete laws and ready to take on the Community acquis. Moreover it would undermine the principle argument of its critics abroad.
The accession process is, as many commentators have remarked, approaching a potential sticking point. A number of instances of late have served to confirm old prejudices about Turkey that I do not believe reflect the truth. There are louder public voices questioning the European Union’s enlargement strategy and calling for a halt or a pause to the process that is, inevitably, changing the character of the Union. For friends of Turkey this is the time to speak up and point out where the dangers lie and what still needs to be done, on both sides, to keep the accession negotiations on track. This applies as much to the Union and its Member States in adjusting to a larger entity that needs to go through its own internal reforms as much as to Turkey and other candidate states.
For Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament, the respect for human rights, civil liberties, the rights of the individual and freedom of expression are non negotiable. They lie at the core of our understanding of society. The vote in the French parliament is proof that anyone, whether candidate country or founder member, will be constantly held to account in this regard.
*Leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe
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