While the subject of the conference in Istanbul was officially about global affairs and a common future for Turkey and the European Union, the Gezi Park protests, that have left three dead and close to 5,000 injured and prompted significant international reaction, hijacked the agenda.
“It is difficult not to mention events that have been taking place since over a week only a few hundred meters from where we convene,” calling for paying attention “to the needs and expectations of society, including that of group that don’t feel represented by the parliamentary majority," Füle said.
“Democracy is a demanding discipline – not only during election campaigns, but every day. It requires debates, consultation and compromise,” he added.
Anti-government protests were sparked largely by discontent towards the Turkish prime minister’s tendency to take hasty steps about major issues without consultations with other relevant parties, confident of his popularity among the electorate. The hotel where the conference was held is situated nearby Dolmabahçe, seat of Erdoğan’s office in Istanbul and site of violent clashes in recent weeks.
Füle said that excessive use of force by police had "no place" in a democracy and called for a “swift and transparent investigation” to bring those responsible to account.
“Energising the EU accession process and strengthening democracy by respecting rights and freedoms are two sides of the same coin,” the enlargement commissioner added.
However, Erdoğan seemed to have a different conception of democracy. Taking to the stage after Füle, the Turkish PM spoke in calmer tones than in previous speeches about the protests, calling for protesters to uphold democratic values. “Those who have a problem with the government should deal with it at the ballot box.”
Erdoğan insists on parliamentary majority
While the the Gezi Park protests have ballooned beyond the current government plans to transform the park bordering Istanbul's Taksim Square into a wider demand for participatory democracy, Erdoğan told EU officials and representatives about his government's environmental policies, as he has on previous occasions.
Erdoğan argued that his party’s victory in past elections justified carrying through with controversial projects like the redevelopment of Gezi Park and Ataturk Cultural Centre (AKM) in Taksim.
“We have said that we are going to demolish AKM and build a huge opera house there. Participants of this vandalism immediately responded ‘we won’t let you demolish it’. Excuse me, but we made this decision before the elections and the majority of the people said ‘yes’ for us in the elections. People supported us, because they supported these [projects],” the prime minister said.
Prime minister's Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power since 2002 and secured the last parliamentary elections in 2011 by winning just under half of the votes. However, there is growing discontent with the party’s policies among the remaining half of the society.
“We are not the party of [only] 50 percent,” Erdoğan said, referring to the last election results, adding that his government serves the entire country.
Erdoğan also expressed resentment towards the reactions of other governments, in which they had voiced concern at the excessive use of force deployed by the Turkish authorities during the protests. “Those who are trying to teach us a lesson; how will they asses the scene on Wall Street in the US? The use of pepper spray, death of 17 people... All these happened there. Similar incidents took place in Britain, France, Germany and Greece. More importantly, these are EU countries. What was the reaction to these?”
The comment prompted an immediate response from Washington, with the United States embassy in Ankara tweeting: “Reports related to the US Occupy Wall Street movement are inaccurate. No US deaths resulted from police actions in Occupy Wall Street”. The embassy removed this message later on, but said that their position had not changed, reported the Turkish daily Hürriyet.
While differences between the European Commission and the Turkish government were apparent from the start of the protests, it became more explicit that Brussels and Ankara were deeply divided over the issue of democracy in Turkey after the opening speeches of the conference.
Shortly after Erdoğan’s remarks, Füle tweeted that he was “disappointed by the lost opportunity at the Istanbul conference to reach out to those calling for respect and inclusive dialogue”.
“There must be a comprehension problem. PM Erdoğan said he welcomes democratic demands but won't give into terror and vandalism,” responded the Turkish EU affairs minister, Egemen Bağış.
The Turkish prime minister appeared to be little concerned by Brussels’ disappointment, delivering on Sunday three lengthy speeches in the cities of Mersin, Adana and Ankara in which he spoke of his victories in the past decade’s elections and again called the protestors “looters” (“çapulcu”).
Last week, the word became hugely popular amongst demonstrators, with many celebrities and prominent business people calling themselves "çapulcu".
“We don’t have to answer anyone but God. Those who may call us to account are not some marginal groups, but the people. The place for that is the ballot box. People have said what they had to say at the ballot box. Instead of going to the Gezi Park or Kuğulu (the park where demonstrators in Ankara gather) and ravaging, they should go to the ballot box," said Erdoğan, addressing his supporters at the airport upon his arrival in Ankara.
“A youth that unspeakably insults their own prime minister cannot belong to me” he said earlier in Mersin, calling those who insult him “scoundrels”.