Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan explained to the European Union’s top officials yesterday (21 January) why he hastily tried to push through sweeping changes in the Turkish judicial system, something which raised alarms in Brussels. But he seemed unable to convince EU officials, who seemed more concerned about the bill's compliance with EU principles than the motives behind them.
Erdoğan’s visit to Brussels yesterday (21 January), the first in five years, came against a background of a recent thaw in relations between Turkey and the EU.
Turkey opened a new chapter in its accession negotiations with the EU last November, the first in three and a half years. The country began EU membership negotiations in 2005.
It also began visa liberalisation talks with the EU in December, something which Ankara had been aspiring to for a long time.
But the visit also came against a backdrop of an even more recent strain in relations, triggered by the Turkish government’s hasty push for sweeping rearrangements of the judicial system. The attempt, which followed a graft scandal that erupted last month and engulfed its several top officials, raised concerns in the EU and the Council of Europe, the continent’s human rights and rule of law watchdog.
Despite the three leaders underlining the need to keep the newfound momentum in the relations alive, issues about the rule of law and the separation of powers stole the show during the joint press conference held by Erdoğan, EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy and the Commission’s president, José Manuel Barroso, after their meeting.
Van Rompuy said "that Turkey as a candidate country is committed to respect the political criteria of accession, including the application of the rule of law and separation of powers" during their meeting with the Turkish premier.
"It is important not to backtrack on achievements and to assure that the judiciary is able to function without discrimination or preference, in a transparent and impartial manner,” he added.
He welcomed the further dialogue on this issue between Turkey and the EU.
Barroso also said that he "relayed the European concerns to Prime Minister Erdoğan, as an honest friend and partner" and that the Turkish leader gave them reassurances of his intention to "fully respect the rule of law, the independence of judiciary and, generally speaking, the separation of powers”.
The president of the Commission said he was confident that the "Turkish government will swiftly address the issues they have raised", adding that structural reforms were a challenging process and not a straightforward one.
Erdoğan complains about “state of the judiciary”
For his part, Erdoğan maintained that Turkey had no problems with the issues of separation of powers or the rule of law, but his government’s push for change was merely aimed at better ensuring the impartiality of the judiciary.
"If the judiciary tends to enjoy its independence by moving away from the principle of impartiality, serious problems arise. It is then the legislature's duty to overcome these problems by ensuring both the independence and the impartiality of the judiciary, and put these on certain fundamentals. If you disregard the legislative and the executive branches, if you recognize the judiciary as completely unaccountable; then it becomes a state of the judiciary, not a democratic state," he said.
Erdoğan holds that the corruption probe targeting top government officials is initiated by circles among the judiciary and law enforcement units loyal to Fethullah Gülen, an influential Turkish preacher living in self-imposed exile in the United States. Gülen is a former ally of Erdoğan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), but relations between supporters of the two men have gone sour in recent years.
The Turkish prime minister accuses a “parallel structure,” a barely veiled reference to the followers of Gülen, with organising a “judicial coup” against his government in the run up to the local elections in March and the presidential elections later this year.
Controversial draft to be discussed further
Europe’s concerns focus on the changes that the AKP wants to make to the structure of High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HCJP), the highest body in Turkey responsible for appointing judges and prosecutors. Currently, the Turkish minister of justice also holds the title of the HCJP presidency, but the draft bill introduced by the government aims to give this largely symbolic post a greater administrative power.
When a journalist asked if putting the justice minister in charge of the judiciary and prosecution services was compatible with the separation of powers, Erdoğan appeared to try to avoid the question simply by playing on an error in the interpretation during the press conference.
“Unless there is a problem in the interpretation services, some ministry of tahkikat ('inquiries' in Turkish) was mentioned. There is no such ministry [in Turkey], nor [any plans] to form one," he said, going on to reiterate that neither executive, legislative or judicial branches should wield power on each other.
The draft bill, which caused brawls in the justice committee of the parliament, goes to the plenary this week for further discussions. The government had earlier proposed to suspend the work on the draft if the opposition parties agreed to work on a change of constitution regarding the issue. But the opposition parties, who suggest that the government is trying to cover up the graft scandal which troubles itself, were cool towards the idea.
AKP lacks enough seats to make constitutional changes without support from the opposition, but could easily pass the changes as a piece of legislation with its comfortable majority in the parliament. The draft will then move on to the president, who holds the power to veto the bill and send it back to the parliament for further discussions.
Turkish president Abdullah Gül, an ally of Erdoğan who has also served in previous AKP governments, voiced his reservations about the draft bill last week. He said that he considered making changes to the constitution rather than introducing new legislation on HCJP to be more appropriate, and also that he would like the changes in the constitution to be made according to EU criteria.
Even if the draft bill becomes law, it will almost certainly be referred to the constitutional court by the opposition.
Erdoğan said that the government received "some recommendations" from Europe about the draft bill and relevant changes have been already made in the parliamentary committee. The government had withdrawn some of the provisions in the bill earlier.
“If there are further developments [while the bill is being discussed in the plenary], we are open to consider these as well,” added the Turkish premier, during a separate press conference with the European Parliament president, Martin Schulz, later.
Van Rompuy said there was still room for improvement, adding: “But the important thing is that we are in close contact, and in close dialogue.”
Another concern raised by the EU earlier was the massive purge in the ranks of law enforcement and judiciary. This particular issue was less pronounced during Erdoğan’s joint press conference with EU leaders. But it was announced that a further 96 prosecutors were relocated only hours after that event, which is a new round in addition to the many since the graft probe began.
EU 'not making an analysis of the political situation'
Whatever Erdoğan’s motives behind the far-reaching readjustments in the judiciary might be, EU leaders seem to be more interested in their implications regarding fundamental EU principles.
Presidents of the Council and the Commission were repeatedly asked by journalists if Erdoğan told them about the evidences of the conspiracy against his government he had been mentioning publicly, and if they found these arguments convincing.
“I reiterated our position that whatever the problems are, we believe that the solution for those problems should respect principles of rule of law and separation of powers. Any concerns regarding the independence and impartiality of the investigations and judges can be addressed, we believe, within the limits of European standards. That was the message I conveyed prime minister Erdogan,” said Barroso, adding that he thanked the Turkish premier for his “presentation of the situation as he sees it”.
Van Rompuy echoed the same message, stressing that Brussels was more interested in whether the acts and laws in Turkey were in accordance with basic EU principles.
“Of course, the prime minister presented his analysis of the situation, and we took good note of this analysis. We are not making our own analysis. What we have to do according to the negotiating framework is to see if the basic principles of the European Union - in terms of acts, in terms of laws - are respected. That is why we shared our concerns, that is why ... the Commissioner responsible for accession is in contact with his counterparts in Turkey - because the Commission has a role in monitoring, a role of reporting on eventual breaches of those principles. But we are not to have an analysis of the political situation. That is internally, for Turkey, to make their own analysis. We have to deal with acts and legislative texts. That's what we are monitoring and that's what we are giving our opinion on.”
Leaders tread carefully
Both Erdoğan and the EU top officials seemed to measure their words during the Turkish premier’s first visit in half a decade, despite the visible tension in the relations.
Erdoğan, who has grown intolerant of criticism from EU in the past, used a much milder tone in Brussels than some anticipated. In June, the Turkish premier said he did not recognise the European Parliament after it adopted a resolution condemning the government for its handling of the summer protests in Turkey.
“[Relations with] the EU will not withstand a ‘one minute’ scene” warned Aykan Erdemir, an MP from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), during a press conference at the Turkish parliament before the premier’s visit to Brussels.
“One minute” is a reference to Erdoğan’s iconic confrontation with Israeli president Shimon Peres in 2009, which marked the beginning of decline in the relations between two countries and became a symbol in Turkey for the prime minister’s impetuous approach to foreign affairs.
Erdoğan last week said the EU “had exceeded its authority” by expressing its concerns about HCJP, because there were no uniform standards for similar bodies in the EU.
Schulz tweeted after his meeting with Erdoğan that European Parliament was a supporter of Turkey’s integration process and that was why they “flagged both progress and setbacks”.
“I consider it more appropriate to discuss these issues through our relevant ministers, rather than to discuss through the media,” said Erdoğan, during the press conference with Van Rompuy and Barroso.