In his 2005 leadership campaign, David Cameron promised to take the Conservatives out of the federalist European People’s Party (EPP). He fulfilled that promise and, in the process, a new grouping of European parties was formed – the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR).
In November last year, the AECR welcomed a rather important new member – Turkey’s ruling political party, the Justice and Development Party or AKP. Turkey is not, of course, a full member of the EU, but if it were then the AKP would constitute the largest single delegation of MEPs in the European Parliament.
Unfortunately, there’s a problem. The AKP’s leader (and Turkey’s Prime Minister) is Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who many fear is emerging as Ankara’s answer to Vladimir Putin.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists there are now more journalists in Turkish prisons than in any other country in the world. With press freedom sharply curtailed, Erdogan’s opponents have turned to social media sites such as Twitter to spread their message – which, as Liat Clark reports for Wired, has provoked the most blatant crackdown on free speech so far:
“Turkey’s prime minister has reengaged his war on Twitter by ordering a ban on the social network in the days leading up to municipal elections – to little effect. Nevertheless, he says he will ‘wipe out’ the platform.
“‘The international community can say this, can say that. I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is,’ AFP reports Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is fighting against the online publication of leaked documents that allude to corruption in his inner circle, as saying.”
To its great credit, Twitter is fighting back:
“Twitter has responded by telling its Turkish users to use its text service, tweeting the instructions in English and Turkish. The US company has responded swiftly to all such instances of governments attempting to block its use – during the Arab Spring in 2011 both Google and Twitter enabled Egyptians to send messages by leaving voicemails.”
“The move from Erdogan comes nine months after he publicly lambasted social media as “the worse menace to society” in the wake of spreading public protests. At the time, Twitter was simply allowing people to rapidly find out about the police brutality that was being used in an attempt to crush the initial protests – 25 people were arrested for tweeting such messages.”
On the 21st March, at a meeting in Brussels in which AKP representatives took part, the AECR unanimously adopted a statement of principles called the Reykjavik Declaration. Here is an especially relevant passage:
“AECR understands that open societies rest upon the dignity and autonomy of the individual, who should be as free as possible from state coercion. The liberty of the individual includes freedom of religion and worship, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of movement and association, freedom of contract and employment, and freedom from oppressive, arbitrary or punitive taxation.”
How can the AECR expect to be taken seriously when a government controlled by one its most important members is using the coercive powers of the state to attack “freedom of speech and expression”?
For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not saying the Conservative Party should quit the AECR and rejoin the EPP. Principles matter and we cannot be part of a grouping that is committed in principle to a federal Europe. But, shouldn’t we hold the principle of free speech as dearly as the principle of national sovereignty?