Europeanization, the impact of European integration on domestic policies, processes, discourses, and institutions of both member and candidate states, is a hot topic. As an integral part of its enlargement process, the European Union (EU) has used the accession negotiations as leverage to promote economic reform as well as democracy, the rule of law, and human rights in candidate countries moving towards EU membership.
Of late, there have been attempts to ‘roll back’ or ‘withdraw from’ EU policies and to depart from European values and norms both in EU member states, including Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Estonia, and candidate countries such as Serbia. Despite taking significant steps to comply with the Copenhagen criteria after receiving the candidate-country status in 1999, Turkey has also been undergoing such a process of de-Europeanization, gradually moving away from European norms, values, and policy demands in various policy areas, including gender policy.
In our article, we explore (de)-Europeanization of Turkey’s gender equality policy in terms of both legislative changes and the shifts observed in domestic actors’ discourses over the past decade, focusing particularly on the debates surrounding the Istanbul Convention. We demonstrate that Turkey’s recent decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention constitutes a case of de-Europeanization – a decision that has undermined Turkey’s European vocation.
The Istanbul Convention (the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence) is the first comprehensive and legally binding document that recognizes violence against women as a violation of women’s human rights and includes measures to prevent violence, protect victims, prosecute perpetrators, and to eliminate all sorts of gender-based violence and discrimination. The European Commission’s progress reports between 2005-2011 as well as the 2009 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, concerning the Opuz v. Turkey case exposed Turkey’s failure to prevent domestic violence against women, which constituted a human rights violation. To improve the country’s image and credibility, Turkey’s governing elites participated in the preparation of the Istanbul Convention and became the first country to sign (2011) and ratify (2012) it.
While Turkey actively participated in its drafting and was the first country to ratify the Istanbul Convention, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a midnight presidential decree in March 2021 pulling the country out of the Convention. Domestic and international factors played a decisive role in the President’s decision. On the domestic policy front, a vocal conservative religious block favoured rolling back existing gender equality legislation, including the Istanbul Convention, arguing that the Convention promotes ‘third gender’ and ‘same sex marriage’. In the context of the economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, President Erdoğan appealed to religious conservative values to energize and expand his party’s base to maintain his rule. The governing Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi-AKP) framed gender equality as a threat to the family and to the future of the nation and promoted ‘gender justice’, based on Islamic values and beliefs, driving Turkey away from EU values, norms, and policy expectations in the field of gender equality. In Turkey, reform reversals took the form of both dismantling of gender equality laws and policies (such as the restrictions on C-Sections, and the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention) and discursive attacks on the gender equality norm, which affected the legitimacy of existing gender equality legislation (such as the Law on the Protection of Family and Prevention of Violence against Women (Law no. 6284) and the legislation on reproductive rights).
International factors such as the stalling EU-Turkey relations coupled with the backlash against gender equality in EU member states also served as the key determinants of de-Europeanization of gender equality policy in Turkey. In a written statement issued by the Communications Directorate of the Presidency of Turkey, six specific EU member states (Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia) with ‘serious concerns over the Convention’ were cited to justify the President’s decision to pull Turkey out of the Istanbul Convention. Our analysis has revealed that the discursive strategies employed by the ruling elite devalued and delegitimized gender equality as a Western/European import and reframed the EU as an ‘inferior’ norm imposer that fails to follow what it preaches. The Istanbul Convention was de-legitimized by emphasizing the essential incompatibility of cultural and religious values between Turkey and the EU and by construing the values of the former as superior in relation to the values of the latter.
Recently, the European Commission took legal action against Hungary and Poland over ‘LGBTQ discrimination’, arguing that these countries breached the EU laws and violated the core EU values and that the Commission ‘will use all the instruments at its disposal to defend these values’. The European Commission and the European Parliament also responded to Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention. The European Parliament resolution on Turkey stated that withdrawal from the Convention ‘brings Turkey further away from the EU’. A similar concern was expressed by the President of the European Commission. These interventions may restore the credibility of the EU, leading candidate countries such as Turkey to (re)consider and reckon with the EU’s call to adopt and implement legislation in line with the EU gender acquis.
Marella Bodur Ün is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Çukurova University, Turkey. Her research interests include gender and politics, social movements, norm contestation, and migration. Her recent work has been published, among others, in Review of International Studies and Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, and in the edited volume EU/Turkey Relations in the Shadows of Crisis: A Break-Up or Revival?(2021).
Links to academic profile: https://avesis.cu.edu.tr/mbodur/yayinlar
Harun Arıkan is a Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Çukurova University, Turkey. His research interests are in the areas of European Union with a particular focus on enlargement and Turkish foreign policy. Previously, Dr. Arıkan served as Head of Department of Political Science and International Relations at Çukurova University. He received a master’s degree in European studies from Manchester University and PhD in international relations from Birmingham University in the UK.