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Turkish violence raises questions over EU talks

European politicians disagree with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's confrontational approach to engaging protesters in Gezi Park. But most say now is not the time to re-evaluate the country's negotiations with the EU.

Riot police fires a water cannon on Gezi Park protesters at Taksim Square in Istanbul June 15, 2013. Turkish riot police stormed Gezi Park on Saturday firing tear gas and water cannon to evict hundreds of anti-government protesters, hours after an ultimatum from Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. REUTERS/Osman Orsal (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

Taksim Platz Gezi Park Istanbul Türkei Räumung

It began as a row over a building project in Istanbul, but it's been clear for some time now that demonstrators have more complaints than a new shopping mall at the city's central Gezi Park. And the local protests have long since turned into a nationwide rebuke on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who showed the first signs at the end of last week that he was ready to compromise.

After nearly four hours of talks with representatives of the protest movement in Ankara, Erdogan floated the idea that he would hold a referendum on the future of the Gezi Park building project. But this capitulation was only temporary, as events on Saturday evening (15.06.2013) showed, when the Turkish police violently cleared the protesters. That move came after the demonstrators announced that resistance against injustice in the country would continue.

A protester throws a teargas canister back at riot police in front of Gezi Park at Taksim Square in Istanbul June 15, 2013. Turkish riot police stormed Gezi Park on Saturday firing tear gas and water cannon to evict hundreds of anti-government protesters, hours after an ultimatum from Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. REUTERS/Osman Orsal (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

The clearance of the Gezi Park came after Erdogan made conciliatory gestures

Divided country

The sudden police violence was something of a surprise. Previously, Udo Steinbach, a Turkey specialist at the Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance in Berlin, had interpreted Erdogan's softening position as an attempt to de-escalate the situation and mollify criticism from abroad. He also pointed out that the Turkish leader has little to fear from a potential referendum on the Gezi Park project. "If the prime minister puts the question to a referendum among the people of Istanbul, then it will go his way - and he knows that," Steinbach told DW.

Steinbach said he sees Turkey as an extremely divided country. "The fault line between those protesting in the past few weeks and the prime minister's supporters is deep," he said. According to a survey by the social research institute Andy-Ar, only 24 percent of the population actually support the Gezi Park protests.

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during a rally organized by his Justice and Development Party in Ankara June 15, 2013. Erdogan warned protesters occupying a central Istanbul park that they should leave before a ruling party rally on Sunday or face eviction by the security forces. REUTERS/Stringer (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

Erdogan's interest in joining the EU is waning, argue some

EU talks stalled?

Despite the recent trouble, Steinbach said he believes the question of whether Turkey has a future in the European Union should not be re-opened just because of the recent clashes. Officially, the stalled EU entry talks are to move into a new phase on June 26, after having been held up for years - partly because of problems with Cyprus.

Some conservative politicians in Europe are now calling for the negotiations to be stopped altogether. In response to that, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton declared last week, "This is not the moment to detach ourselves, but engage more deeply."

Germany's Green party co-chairman Cem Özdemir, himself of Turkish heritage, expressed a similar view. He accused the German government under Chancellor Angela Merkel of neglecting its chance to have greater influence on Erdogan's administration.

"Unfortunately, and this goes for both Merkel and her government, we have neglected our ties to Ankara by making it clear from early on that we are not talking about membership, but something like a privileged partnership," he told DW. In view of that, he said, it was no surprise that Turkey was not taking declarations from Berlin or Brussels very seriously.

Still keen to join?

Political scientist Udo Steinbach. Zulieferer: Vadim Chataline

Steinbach believes Turkey still wants closer ties to Europe

Özdemir even doubted whether Erdogan is still particularly interested in Turkey's EU membership at all.

"My impression is that Mr. Erdogan would not be particularly sad to see the current coalition win the election in Berlin again," he said. "Then they can keep playing the same game. One side pretends that they're giving Turkey a fair chance, and other side - in this case Turkey - pretends that they really want to join."

Özdemir was not the only one to take this view. Rolf Mützenich, foreign policy spokesman for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), said he thought Turkish politicians were beginning to move away from the EU.

"I wouldn't reduce it to one individual," he said. "But we see that there are groups in Turkish society who believe that they can get by without partners, or that they can work better with new partners, partly because of developments in the Arab world, but especially because of the economic development in Turkey."

But Steinbach said Turkey's move towards Europe was continuing, dismissing Erdogan's sometimes self-contradictory statements as snapshots guided by the current situation.

"At the moment he's annoyed about the EU's reaction and the criticism from the European Parliament," he said. "But that's an emotional reaction that has been poorly thought through. The Turkish president [Abdullah Gül] himself has repeatedly made clear that moving closer to the EU is a crucial precondition for Turkey's continued modernizing and democratizing process."

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