The bolder Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gets, the quieter the European Union (EU).

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives for a meeting with European Council President Charles Michel at the European Council building in Brussels, March 9, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

The conclusion of last week’s EU summit showed, as last year under the German Presidency, that when it comes to Turkey, geopolitics and migration have pushed human rights off the EU’s priority list.

Despite the Erdogan government using courts to silence and detain journalists, opposition politicians and anyone regarded as a critic by bringing  bogus terrorism charges, or applying new laws to stifle free speech and target civil society, the EU treats human rights as secondary.

President Erdogan’s government recently doubled down attacks by withdrawing from a treaty combatting violence against women and moved to close down the second-largest opposition party in parliament. But EU leaders barely blinked.

They should urgently review their approach if they don’t want to lose leverage on rights and credibility among those in Turkey who seeks a better and more democratic future.

First, talks with Turkish counterparts should clearly lay out the severity of the human rights situation in Turkey and be backed up by public statements on the same. The examples of the EU’s top diplomat deleting a mild reference to rule of law when due to speak beside the Turkish foreign minister, or the EU’s top officials Ursula Von Der Leyen and Charles Michel not even bringing it up, are shameful recent instances of appeasement.

Second, they should press Turkey to comply with its basic international law obligations. The refusal to comply with the European Court’s rulings to release philanthropist Osman Kavala and politician Selahattin Demirtaş should lead to serious consequences. Finally the EU should give little weight to a vague ‘human rights action plan’ until Turkey demonstrates its judiciary is not a weapon of repression.

Visible progress on human rights should be a prerequisite for any move to open discussions on a modernized Customs Union. It’s now, before talks start, that Turkey should understand that progress is not possible without concrete measures to ensure an independent judiciary and democratic, accountable institutions that are essential for good relations with Europe.

EU leaders’ hope for more stable and reliable relations with Erdogan’s government should not mean giving up on all possibility of a rights-respecting Turkey. An EU “positive agenda” that ignores human rights isn’t positive at all when it flouts EU values and fails Turkey’s citizens.