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The End of Turkey’s Speech Law?

Some long-overdue good news – perhaps – from Turkey yesterday, where the European Union's carrot-and-stick approach, so often criticised in the past, may be about to see the repeal, or at least reform, of the Turkish penal code's infamous Article 301, which bans ‘insults' against Turkish identity or national institutions on pain of jail. The article has been used to prosecute Orhan Pamuk and Hrant Dink, among others; though both were acquitted, of course, Dink tragically did not escape the ultra-nationalist's ‘justice' for long.

In the light of the furore over the Foxman affair, it's worth recalling that the situation in Turkey is one without parallel in the Western world (and since that is the category into which nation aspires to be bracketed, let's run with that for the time being). It's only a few months since the European Union unveiled plans (eventually diluted) to make Holocaust denial a crime EU-wide, and several member states maintain and enforce Holocaust denial statutes rigorously, as David Irving found to his cost. Yet in Turkey it is not genocide denial which is the criminal offence but genocide affirmation.

Opinion is divided on what happened to the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire 90 years ago. Everyone else in the world says they were systematically massacred; Turkey says they weren't. If the historical debate was closed long ago, the Turkish state seems to have misinterpreted the resulting consensus. The rethink on Article 301, then, is not the fruit of introspection but has been forced on them by the EU, whose enlargement Commissioner, Olli Rehn, presented a report on Tuesday that was highly critical of continuing restrictions on free speech in the most high-profile of its aspirant members:

"The infamous article 301 must be repealed or amended without delay," Mr Rehn suggested […] "This is not acceptable in a European democracy that writers, journalists, academics and other intellectuals are prosecuted for simply expressing a critical but completely non-violent opinion."

That was the stick. The carrot was a promise to open negotiations on the judicial and human rights chapters of accession talks as soon as the penal code was cleaned up to Brussels' satisfaction. This may be the first step in that process.

Europeans are wont to compare their masterful use of ‘soft power' with the heavy-handed, bull-in-the-china-shop belligerence of American policy, though we've heard less crowing from that quarter since the good-cop bad-cop routine with Iran went tits-up. Ankara can hardly be compared with Tehran, of course, but the principle remains the same; draw them in rather than freeze them out, more leverage with friends than enemies, etc. etc. It's reasoning such as this that leads Tony Blair to visit Gaddafi's tent, or the EU to invite the likes of Mugabe to their summits; a touching but naïve belief that since we put aside our differences by setting up a giant talking shop, it'll work with others too.

The problem with is that Turkish public opinion has long since grown tired of this elaborate diplomatic dance; there's little appetite for further concessions. The saber-rattling in Kurdistan shows that Ankara is not afraid to give the West the finger when it sees fit. Nor is there much real enthusiasm on the Continent for Turkish accession, except in London: and even here you can be sure that if there were any realistic prospect of Turkish entry into the EU the tabloid press would swing into full scaremongering mode – just think of all the swarthy immigrants! – and the government would start backtracking at some speed. Moreover, several other EU members have stated their outright hostility to Turkey joining the Union, and that's not likely to change any time soon.

So whilst the repeal of Article 301 is clearly good news, one swallow does not make a summer; it doesn't presage any real shift in Turkey's official stance towards the Armenian genocide, which remains utterly hardline, and it doesn't mean that the path to acceptance in the European family of nations is going to get any smoother.

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