BRUSSELS -- The European Parliament has postponed a decision to upgrade the European Union's relationship with Turkmenistan until July and might even delay the process till the autumn.
The move to stall the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Turkmenistan -- agreed by the Foreign Affairs Committee on May 25 -- comes after a delegation of members of the European Parliament (MEPs) visited the Central Asian country in April to take stock of the human rights situation there.
The agreements are the standard cooperation formats used by the EU to deal with countries that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union.
They provide a legal framework for political and economic dialogue and are aimed at supporting democracy and the development of a functional market economy.
The committee initially approved the agreement in January, paving the way for the whole chamber to vote on its ratification. But a lack of progress on several human rights issues has prompted the EU lawmakers to slow down the process.
Finnish MEP and Chairwoman of the sub-committee on human rights Heidi Hautala
A Finnish MEP who's chairwoman of the sub-committee on human rights, Heidi Hautala, was part of the delegation and told RFE/RL that their visit to Turkmenistan swayed the parliament. She said she was troubled by what she saw in the country, as well as by the fact that they "were not allowed to meet any representative of civil society in Turkmenistan."
Hautala added that Turkmenistan had to "understand that it must allow dissent."
The Turkmen deal has split all major parties in the European Parliament and the negative account of the delegation has made the Foreign Affairs Committee hesitant to move ahead for the time being.
Human Rights Benchmarks
Portuguese MEP Ana Gomes, who also visited Turkmenistan, told RFE/RL that the current interim agreement with Ashgabat was sufficient for Brussels at the moment.
"We believe that even to actually continue to insist on human rights we need that engagement; we need a proper EU delegation in Turkmenistan and that doesn’t require a PCA," she said.
Gomes also said that the EU would "still have to explore" the interim trade agreement with Turkmenistan that already exists, "which includes the human rights clause and the benchmarks that Turkmenistan still needs to fulfill."
Before it endorses a deal, the parliament wants two things -- a proper EU delegation in the country; and a functioning mechanism to assess human rights benchmarks in areas such as the release of political prisoners and access to the country by independent human rights monitors such as the UN rapporteur on torture.
EU-Turkmen relations are currently channeled through a "Europe House" in Ashgabat that uses outsourced EU staff.
That set-up is unsatisfactory according to Gomes, who wants diplomats from the EU’s new diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service (EEAS) to be present in the country.
Portuguese Euro MEP, Ana Gomes
"The current situation with officers who are hired in an environment as repressive as that in Turkmenistan actually leads the people to exercise self-censorship and actually not perform as the parliament expects them to perform," Gomes said.
"It would be different if they are officers of the EU External Action Service [who] are not afraid to be removed from [their] contract."
A Tool In A Turf War
The reluctance of the European Parliament to embrace the deal has set it on a collision course with the EU's diplomatic arm, which has been working for a quick ratification. By noting that Turkmenistan is the only country in the region that doesn't yet enjoy such cooperation with Brussels.
"From our point of view, Turkmenistan is the only remaining country in the region which is not bound by a PCA," says Maja Kocijancic, the spokeswoman for EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton. "We have a very old framework that dates back for over twenty years so we believe that in order to have a better EU leverage, a better tool to promote human rights, it is important to sign this partnership and cooperation agreement."
Hautala, however, is not swayed by the arguments presented by the EU's foreign service. "They simply are trying to give the impression that they [are doing] something very serious in order to improve the human rights situation in Turkmenistan," she said. "I haven’t seen any of that. They are also giving completely false impressions that the PCA will make it possible to fully engage and fully improve the situation."
The apparent rift between the two bodies is also a sign of the new division of powers created with the advent of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.
The PCA with Turkmenistan is the first agreement with a third country that needs full ratification by both the European Parliament and the EU member states.
Many observers have pointed out that the Turkmen deal has gradually become a tool in a turf war between a parliament keen to flex its muscles in foreign affairs and the other EU institutions.