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At cross-purposes

Bernd Riegert / cmk
January 22, 2014

The EU believes the independence of Turkey's judiciary is under threat, while Prime Minister Erdogan believes the West is conspiring against him. After meeting with EU leaders in Brussels, many questions remain.

The EU and Turkish flags
Image: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

With a relaxed attitude and a slight smile, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stood behind the Plexiglas lectern in the press room of the European Council building in Brussels on Tuesday (21.01.2014). He listened calmly to the critical remarks of his European dialogue partners, letting the journalists' questions roll off his back as he ran his hand over his green tie.

Erdogan, who recently had to fire several government ministers linked to a corruption scandal, also reassigned hundreds of police officers and investigators that were involved with the graft probe. This reprimand of the investigative authorities was denounced by the European Union, which called it an encroachment on the independence of the judiciary. Responding in Brussels, Erdogan said that the independence of the judiciary should not lead to an abuse of its powers.

"The judiciary must not dominate the democracy," said Erdogan. The prime minister was far from admitting any mistake on his part, nor would he make a promise to EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy that there would be an improvement. But the two leaders had spoken "in friendship" about everything, with both sides wanting to continue the EU accession process for Turkey.

For his part, Van Rompuy carefully urged the prime minister to comply with the rules of the game. "Progress in accession negotiations and progress in political reforms in Turkey are the two sides of the same coin," he said, stressing that as an EU candidate country, Turkey must respect democratic principles including the separation of powers and the rule of law.

"It's important not to backtrack on achievements and ensure the judiciary is able to function without discrimination of preference, in a transparent and impartial manner," he said.

Dark forces at work?

Erdogan, Van Rompuy and Barroso speak
Van Rompuy (center) and Barroso (right) remained committed to Turkey's EU membershipImage: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

Back at home, Erdogan has spoken of a conspiracy against him and Turkey, calling the uncovered corruption scandal in his government the work of foreign powers. The US and Israel were identified as culprits, but also named were the European Union and, especially, the Islamic Gülen movement. Speaking in Brussels, Erdogan once again hinted at this conspiracy theory.

"Turkey is becoming stronger. Ten years ago we had an economic output of $230 billion. Today it's over $800 billion (590 billion euros)," said Erdogan, adding that Turkey was now the world's 18th largest economic power. "That may be uncomfortable to some people and groups, and could lead to a negative attitude towards our country. Herman Van Rompuy and I have openly discussed this issue and continue to do so."

In November, the EU and Turkey opened a new, not particularly controversial chapter in the slow-running EU accession negotiations after a three-year hiatus. A month later, a day before the corruption scandal broke, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström began a dialogue on visa-free travel for Turks in the EU after Turkey agreed to take back its citizens who were staying illegally in the EU. This progress in the EU-Turkey relationship came after the controversial events of the summer, when Europe condemned the violence of the Turkish police against demonstrators protesting in Istanbul's Taksim Square.

Many questions, few answers

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was clear on Tuesday that the EU still wanted to pursue EU membership for Turkey, but said that questions had to be asked. "It is precisely because of the importance of our relations and because of their big further potential that we are concerned, as many others in the European Union, about recent events in Turkey," he said. "I have today relayed European concerns to Prime Minister Erdogan as an honest friend and partner, [asking] what exactly is happening today in Turkey?"

Erdogan, in Brussels for the first time in three years, did not answer the question, only assuring the president that it was nice to be able "speak our minds." Van Rompuy was quick to say that the EU did not wish to interfere in Turkey's internal political affairs. "We cannot have an analysis of the political situation. That is internal. That's for Turkey to make its own analysis. We have to deal with acts and legislative texts. And that is what we're monitoring and that's what we're giving our opinion on," he said.

Protests in Istanbul 29.12.13
Turkish citizens have increasingly protested against Erdogan's leadershipImage: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier also expressed concern about how Erdogan is trying to bring the judiciary and law enforcement agencies under the control of the government. "In any case, there remain many questions to which Europeans still have no answers," he said. "Let's put it this way: the longer we wait for answers, the harder it will be to continue talking about the subject which we thought we had already dealt with: namely, the opening of new negotiating chapters."

The EU Commission and the Turkish government are currently discussing the opening of two more negotiation chapters in the accession talks. But for this to happen, a unanimous yes vote is necessary from all 28 member states. After the meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday, Steinmeier said no one had yet suggested the suspension of accession talks.

Erdogan under pressure

The relationship between EU leaders and the Turkish prime minister remained cool in Brussels on Tuesday, with no movement on the question of Turkey recognizing EU member state Cyprus. But both sides said they were prepared to continue talks.

Elmar Brok, the chairman of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs, had already expressed his skepticism of Erdogan's leadership and political style after the demonstrations in Istanbul in the summer. "The longer Erdogan is in office, the more authoritarian he becomes, and the less open he has become to opposition," he said.

Erdogan has been prime minister for nearly 11 years. His reforms led to Turkey opening EU accession talks in 2005, after decades of waiting. This year, the 59-year-old had hoped to be elected to the presidency, the crowning achievement of his political career. But according to media reports, opposition to Erdogan is growing, even in his own party.

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