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Turkey: Zaman Newspaper

Volume 769: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the Government of Turkey about the seizure of the Zaman newspaper.

My Lords, we regularly underline the importance of freedom of expression and all fundamental freedoms as part of our dialogue with the Turkish Government. On Monday, the Prime Minister raised concerns about press freedoms with Turkey’s Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, underlining the importance of protections for a free press and human rights in Turkey. As a friend and ally, we urge the Turkish Government to uphold the right of media to operate without restriction.

I have been a committed friend of Turkey for 40 years or so, but I now see a country where journalists are imprisoned, the media are persecuted, the Constitutional Court’s rulings are openly criticised by the President, and the main opposition newspaper is seized. Dissent and disagreement are seen as crimes, human rights violations are widespread, and it all seems to be getting worse. Does the Minister think that Turkey can be trusted to respect the human rights of all the refugees, including Kurds, who are to be returned to its care under the EU plan?

My Lords, I stress that the EU plan has not yet been finalised. It was raised in the margins of the summit and indeed after the summit had formally concluded. President Tusk will, within 10 days, be concluding what the agreement looks like. However, the noble Lord makes a very valid point, whatever agreement may or may not be reached. The answer to it is that Turkey has already shown extraordinary generosity in hosting 2.6 million refugees from Syria and another 600,000 from other countries. It has already shown that it can be trusted to deliver a change of legislation whereby those refugees are able to work in Turkey, and during the next school year every Syrian child will be able to get access to education. We will hold it to any agreements.

My Lords, has any estimate been made, to the nearest million, of the number of Turks who might be eligible to enter the European Union—and, ultimately, the United Kingdom—without visas?

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord refers to one of the issues that was under discussion after the summit had concluded its official session on Monday. The question of whether visa restrictions will be lifted within the Schengen area is now being considered and a proposal will be brought forward at the next European Council meeting, which I believe will be on 16 or 17 March. I repeat that that is for the Schengen area only and not for here, and therefore I suggest that it is a little premature to try to estimate how many Turks will avail themselves of it.

My Lords, will my noble friend, through the Prime Minister, tell the German Chancellor and others that it is completely unacceptable and utterly bonkers to think that it is appropriate to export back to Turkey migrants who have come to Europe in return for Turkey being able to send people to this country?

My Lords, the proposal itself is welcome in that, in outline as it stands, it would break the business model enjoyed by the most evil people that I can think of beyond Daesh—the human traffickers who make people’s lives a misery by promising a life in Europe as the automatic result of getting on a leaky boat in the Mediterranean and risking their life, along with the lives of their children. I absolutely understand my noble friend’s point and I assure him that the Prime Minister will bear in mind the concerns that underlie his question.

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that the best way of bringing effective and continuing pressure on the Turkish Government over matters of press freedom and human rights is to open some new chapters in their accession negotiations, which would provide real leverage on Turkey? The failure to do so has meant that the EU’s leverage has been very weak in recent years.

The noble Lord makes a very strong point. The 35 chapters of the accession negotiations were opened in 2005, and progress through them has indeed been taking some time. It is a matter of further discussion whether and how further chapters might be opened. Clearly, requests are being made by Turkey, but the noble Lord’s point is right: it provides leverage.

My Lords, in the light of the opening of these chapters and the negotiations that will flow from that, will the issues of press freedom, freedom of speech and human rights be part of those discussions? Turkey is in a very difficult and volatile situation, given the war and all those refugees on its doorstep. I ask for an assurance that that is not lost in the European Union’s keenness to keep all the refugees in Turkey.

My Lords, I can give that assurance. The Prime Minister made that point very clearly during the summit itself and ensured that language on that was included in the summit’s published conclusions.

My Lords, I am very sorry that the House requires me to take up valuable time to adjudicate. It is the turn of the Labour Benches and, therefore, of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson.

My Lords, is it an unspoken, unwritten part of the deal under discussion that we moderate our criticism of the authoritarian tendencies of the current Turkish Government?

No, my Lords. Human rights underpin all the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as I made clear when I appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee of another place recently. We will never hold back from speaking out or from holding people to account on the important issues of the Copenhagen agreement, whereby democracy and the rule of law underpin everything.