January 21, 2014 5:55 pm

Erdogan stirs concern but avoids showdown on visit to Brussels

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Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan©AFP

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, took controversial plans to establish firmer political control of the country’s judiciary to Brussels on Tuesday – and avoided a showdown with the EU, despite his hosts’ expressions of concern.

The bloc, which Turkey has long been negotiating to join and on which it depends for investment, trade and financing, has expressed unease about Mr Erdogan’s plans to give the Turkish justice ministry increased powers over judges and prosecutors amid a continuing political feud within the country.

“It is important not to backtrack on achievements and to ensure that the judiciary is able to function without discrimination and prejudice in a transparent and impartial manner,” Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, said at a press conference after a meeting with Mr Erdogan.

But José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, sounded a more positive note. “I am confident that the Turkish government will swiftly address the issues we have raised,” he said.

Cengiz Aktar at the Istanbul Policy Centre, a think-tank, said that Turkey’s EU ties would come under further strain because of a proposal he described as fundamentally inimical to the separation of powers between Turkey’s executive and its judiciary. “Thank God we didn’t have a major crisis today,” Mr Aktar said of the Brussels meetings. “But nothing is solved.”

Mr Erdogan’s visit to the EU capital – the first in half a decade – had been conceived towards the end of last year, when ties with the bloc were improving. Ankara had resumed membership talks after a hiatus of more than three years. The two sides signed an agreement for Turkey to take back illegal migrants from third countries and began talks on visa liberalisation.

Speaking to reporters at the European Parliament, Mr Erdogan expressed some frustration with the slow pace of accession talks, saying: “The EU has kept us waiting at the door for 51 years now. If we get a result, we will continue on that path. But if we don’t get a result, we might end up turning in another direction.”

With Turkey overwhelmingly reliant on short-term capital flows to fund its $60bn current account deficit, the country is keen to increase foreign direct investment, of which the EU traditionally provides 70 per cent or more.

However, Turkey’s relations with the EU have been jolted not just by Ankara’s plans for the judiciary but also by proposed new restrictions on internet access and the removal of thousands of police officers from their posts in the wake of a corruption probe into government-connected figures.

Mr Erdogan has blamed the investigation on a “parallel state” led by followers of Fethullah Gulen, a preacher and former government ally, who established a particularly strong presence in the country’s police, prosecution service and judiciary.

In his Brussels meeting, he told Mr Van Rompuy and Mr Barroso that Ankara was committed to a full separation of the government and the judiciary but warned that, in Turkey’s case, judges had exceeded their powers.

“The judiciary should not go beyond its defined missions and mandates,” he said. He also said that the legislation was already being tweaked in parliament.

The EU leaders insisted they were committed to continuing the 27-year-long accession process. “The EU should remain the anchor for reforms in Turkey,” Mr Van Rompuy said.

Mr Barroso added he had held constructive talks with Mr Erdogan on diversifying EU gas supplies through Turkey, while Mr Erdogan said he hoped that membership talks would now pick up after their loss of momentum.

“We have to move forward quickly,” he said. In a sign of his current focus on Europe, Mr Erdogan is next week due to host François Hollande, French president, and is planning to visit Germany next month.

Meanwhile Neelie Kroes, the EU’s commissioner for the digital agenda, expressed her own concerns. “Last time I met minister of Erdogan govt, he committed to free & open internet. Time to live up to that promise,” she tweeted.

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