Turkey’s Erdoğan visits Brussels amid corruption scandal
Rocked by a corruption scandal, Turkey looks further than ever from its goal of European Union membership as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan meets with EU officials today (21 January) in Brussels amid a crackdown on the judiciary and police.
Erdoğan has purged hundreds of police and sought tighter control of the courts since a corruption inquiry burst into the open last month, a scandal he has cast as an attempted "judicial coup" meant to undermine him ahead of elections.
The purge extended to the banking and telecoms regulators as well as state TV over the weekend, with dozens of executives fired in moves that appeared to broaden the backlash.
Erdoğan, who has mockingly dismissed expressions of concern from the EU, is due to hold talks from Tuesday with top officials including European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.
But the backdrop for his first trip to Brussels in five years is not the one that his aides might have hoped for.
“Erdoğan's visit will have its challenges," said one official in his office, noting that the visit had been planned long before the corruption scandal erupted.
Ankara began negotiations to join the EU in 2005, 18 years after applying. But a series of political obstacles, notably over the divided island of Cyprus, and resistance to Turkish membership in Germany and France, have slowed progress.
Both sides are likely to make grand statements about the importance of reform and commitment to Turkish accession. But in private, officials say the developments of recent weeks mark a considerable setback in their relationship.
"This has chilled the atmosphere to a significant extent," one EU source told Reuters, describing Erdoğan's reaction to the graft scandal as a "cold shower" for relations with the bloc.
A draft bill from Erdoğan's ruling AK Party which would give government greater control over the appointment of judges and prosecutors, has raised alarm in Brussels.
Erdoğan's supporters say the reforms will bolster, not weaken, the independence of the courts by curbing the power of Fethullah Gülen, a U.S.-based cleric and former ally who wields influence among the police and judiciary.
"We will continue with this step we have taken on the changes to the law ... Hopefully our friends will get this through parliament without delay," the prime minister told reporters in Ankara before leaving for Belgium.
Erdoğan's visit had been meant to build on positive momentum after the start of a new round of EU membership talks in November, the first in more than three years. The discussions had been delayed by EU states in protest over a Turkish crackdown on anti-government demonstrations last summer.
Now Erdoğan's critics say his response to the corruption probe is further evidence of the authoritarian tendencies of a man long held up by the West as a potential model of democratic leadership in the Muslim world.
"I think this visit will confirm the growing distance between Turkey and the EU," said Fadi Hakura, Turkey analyst at British think-tank Chatham House.
"The accession process is clearly comatose, is clearly stagnant and there is little trust between the Turkish government and EU."
Some in western Europe fear Turkish membership would widen the EU's borders too far, to the fringes of Iran, Iraq and Syria. Erdogan has repeatedly criticised the slow progress of the accession process and opposition from some EU members.
But his office stressed he would use his visit to Brussels to push for full membership.
"This visit is a sign that Turkey has not given up on the EU," the official in his office said.
"It is unjust to show Turkey as the reason for relations not going as intended ... Turkey is continuing to make reforms in every area and its economy is very strong. In this environment there is no benefit for anyone in halting Turkey any longer."
A NATO member with hopes of EU membership, Turkey is locked in a long power struggle between the AK Party, which has its roots in political Islam, and conservative, nationalist secularists, whose bastions remain the military and judiciary.
Known as 'Kemalists', the Turkish military are considered guardians of Kemal Ataturk's secular legacy. After World War I, Ataturk sought to transform the ruins of the Ottoman empire into a democratic, secular nation state. In past decades, the military has toppled several governments.
In 2008 the ruling AKP curtailed the army's power as part of what was presented as efforts to prepare the country for EU accession. In response, the military launched an unsuccessful bid to ban AKP.
A wave of arrests of suspected members of 'Ergenekon', a mysterious organisation close to the secularist military establishment, brought new tension to Turkey. In the recent past, the EU has taken the side of AKP against those accused of "being members of the Ergenekon criminal organisation".
A sit-in against plans to demolish a park in Istanbul sparked the fiercest anti-AKP in recent years in Turkey, and the heavy-handed reaction by the authorities raised concerns in the West.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the President of the main opposition party in Turkey CHP (Republican People’s Party), wrote a letter to Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council President, bringing to his attention “a few remarks about Turkey”.
Kılıçdaroğlu says that while it is important that the EU reaffirms its commitment to Turkey’s accession, this stance should be accompanied by “a strong and public insistence of full compliance by Turkey to the Copenhagen criteria, with particular emphasis on an independent judiciary and a working system of checks and balances”.
There should also be a call for unstinted respect of freedom of expression, press, assembly and communication, Kılıçdaroğlu writes.