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Now more than ever

Lewis Gropp / bk
June 13, 2013

Germany is urging the Turkish government to keep calm after the brutal repression of protests in Istanbul. Despite criticisms, many are calling for Turkey's EU entry negotiations to restart - now more than ever.

A riot police officer fires tear gas at anti-government protesters during a protest in Kennedy street in central Ankara June 13, 2013. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) / Eingestellt von wa
Türkei / Polizei / Ankara / TränengasImage: Reuters

"With its reaction to the protests so far, the Turkish government is sending the wrong signal to its own country, but also to Europe," said Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in the German parliament.

He described the images from Istanbul's Taksim Square as "disturbing."

Tuesday night (12.06.2013) saw the worst clashes between police and demonstrators in Istanbul since the protests against the conservative government began two weeks ago. The German government criticized both the police action and the hardline attitude of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in the Bundestag in Berlin (photo: Maurizio Gambarini dpa/lbn)
Westerwelle condemned the police repression in TurkeyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"The Turkish government must show Europe and the world that it will be guided by the principles laid out by the Council of Europe: democracy, freedom rights, and the rule of law," the minister told MPs.

German President Joachim Gauck joined in the condemnation in a telephone call with his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gül, saying he was concerned about the "excessive violence" in the country.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, had already expressed criticism of developments in Turkey on June 3.

Halt to entry negotiations?

Faced with the riots, several Christian Democrat MEPs called negotiations for Turkey's entry to the European Union to be stopped completely. Markus Pieper and Peter Liese called on the Council of the European Unionl not to go ahead with the new phase of negotiations on regional aid, planned for the end of June. That would, they said, send the wrong signal to what was clearly an increasingly authoritarian regime. The German media also reported that some in the German Foreign Ministry were also skeptical about the continued talks.

But for Johannes Kahrs of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), breaking off the negotiations would be a step in the wrong direction. Though Kahrs, who heads the Bundestag's German-Turkish parliamentary group, is heavily critical of Erdogan's actions, he is convinced that if Europe turned its back on Turkey now, it would have a negative effect on the democratization process in the country.

"It's only in the context of an entry process that the values the demonstrators are demanding can be strengthened," Kahrs told DW. To cut off talks with Ankara now would be counterproductive, he argued.

Losing influence

Kahrs also maintained that Germany's influence in Turkey was very low at the moment partly because a few years ago Merkel and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy had signalled to Ankara that the country was not wanted in the EU. Within the framework of an entry process, he said, European leaders would have been better able to influence Turkish affairs, not least because Turkey really does want to be part of the EU.

"After we practically shut the door in their face with the 'privileged partnership' sound bite, Turkey re-orientated itself in a number of issues - even the majority in favor of EU entry among the population has gone," said Kahrs. "But that was always our best chance to have any influence on Turkish domestic policies."

Turkish riot police take position at Taksim Square in Istanbul June 12, 2013. Turkish riot police fought running battles with pockets of protesters overnight, clearing the central Istanbul square that has been the focus of nearly two weeks of protests against Turkey's prime minister. By dawn, Taksim Square, strewn with wreckage from bulldozed barricades, was largely deserted and taxis crossed it for the first time since the troubles started. Several hundred remained in an encampment of tents in Gezi Park abutting the square. REUTERS/Osman Orsal (TURKEY - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS)
EU progress reports had criticized Turkey on issues of the right to demonstrate and policing for yearsImage: Reuters

Ruprecht Polenz, foreign policy spokesman for the Christian Democratic faction in the Bundestag, also called for negotiations to continue. He expressed the hope that the current confrontation would constitute a learning process that would "strengthen" Turkish democracy. "What can we do?" Polenz asked Wednesday in parliament, and answered, to applause, "I think we must revitalize the EU process."

Now more than ever

He wants to draw particular attention to that chapter of the negotiations that deals with the law and basic rights. "It would be an ideal time to talk to Turkey about those changes that are structurally necessary, which had always been mentioned in progress reports," he said. These reports had rightly pointed out that little progress had been made both on the issues of the right to demonstrate and policing. If negotiations were raised again now, Germany could have a long-term institutional influence on Turkey.

Like many other German politicians, Polenz said the clashes in Turkey suggested that civil society was getting stronger in the country. Westerwelle echoed this view: "Demonstrations that are taking place now are a sign of the maturity and strength of civil society. We should be glad to see it, and should not be afraid of it."

Kahrs also took the side of the demonstrators. "Europe is not a Christian club, but a community of shared values," he said. "And the values we want are precisely the values being demonstrated for at the moment."

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