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Turkey clashes with EU over stance on Hamas

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The EU said it was in “complete disagreement” with Turkey’s stance on Hamas after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan referred to the Palestinian militant group behind the October 7 attack on Israel as a “liberation” movement.

The rebuke from the European Commission came in a report published on Wednesday that outlined “serious deficiencies” in the functioning of Turkey’s democratic institutions as well as the “deterioration of human and fundamental rights” in the country.

The tough language is the latest sign of how relations between Turkey and Europe remain fraught, even after Erdoğan appointed what many analysts saw as a more western-friendly cabinet following his election victory in May. The commission’s assessment of Turkey is a regular part of long-stalled EU accession talks with Ankara.

Erdoğan’s increasingly strong condemnation of Israel’s operations in Gaza, and consistent criticism of the support the Jewish state has received from western allies, has been a source of concern in European capitals as well as Washington, according to several diplomatic sources.

Erdoğan last month told members of his political party in parliament that “Hamas is not a terrorist organisation, but a liberation group, a mujahideen group that struggles to protect its lands and citizens”. The EU and the US consider Hamas a terrorist organisation.

The Turkish president reiterated those comments at a recent rally in Istanbul, where he slammed Israel as a “war criminal” for its bombardment of Gaza. More than 10,000 people have been killed in the Hamas-run enclave since the war broke out, according to Gazan officials.

“[Turkey’s] rhetoric in support to terrorist group Hamas following its attacks against Israel on 7 October 2023 is in complete disagreement with the EU approach,” the commission said. The Hamas attack on Israel killed 1,400 people, according to Israeli officials.

Turkey’s foreign ministry responded to the commission’s report by saying it was “necessary to remind the EU, which stands in the wrong place of history in the face of a civilian massacre . . . that policies based on universal values, international law and humanitarian principles should be valid not only for Ukraine . . . but all over the world, including the Middle East.”

The commission’s assessment of Turkey also warned of “backsliding” in Turkey’s democratic institutions and on fundamental human rights. This included concern about Turkey’s “refusal to implement certain European Court of Human Rights rulings”.

The legislative wing of the Council of Europe, which oversees the ECHR, last month issued a censure after a top Turkish court upheld a lifetime sentence against the philanthropist Osman Kavala on charges of attempting to overthrow the government. The ECHR has previously called on Turkey to release Kavala, saying it found no “facts, information or evidence” to justify his detention. 

Turkey hit back strongly, saying the Council of Europe was guilty of a “historical mistake” and accusing the organisation of “instrumentalising judicial processes for politics”.

The commission report also said that while the Turkish general election won by Erdoğan in May had “offered voters a choice between genuine political alternatives and voter participation remained high . . . biased media coverage and the lack of a level playing field gave an unjustified advantage to the incumbent”.

It also said: “Political pluralism [in Turkey] continued to be undermined by the targeting of opposition parties and individual members of parliament.”

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Turkey’s foreign ministry said “we completely reject the baseless allegations and unfair criticisms in the report,” especially as it relates to local politics and human rights.

The row over the commission’s report on Wednesday came at a key moment in Turkey-Europe relations, with the EU and the US pushing Turkey to approve Sweden’s accession to the Nato military alliance. Erdoğan has sent the measure to parliament, which is controlled by a coalition led by his political party, but it has yet to leave the foreign policy committee, which must approve it before it is voted on by the country’s legislators.

Turkey, which is attempting to lure fresh western capital for its economic overhaul, is also lobbying heavily for EU visa liberalisation for its citizens. 

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