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Turkish Leader, Amid Scandal at Home, Visits Brussels to Try to Repair Ties 22 janvier 2014

Posted by Acturca in Turkey / Turquie, Turkey-EU / Turquie-UE.
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The New York Times (USA) Wednesday, January 22, 2014, p. A 6

By Dan Bilefsky, Paris

Buffeted by a corruption scandal and accusations of creeping authoritarianism, Turkey faces long odds in its bid to join the European Union even as the country’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visited Brussels on Tuesday to try to repair a badly frayed relationship with Europe.

The timing of Mr. Erdogan’s first trip to Brussels in five years could hardly be worse. In recent weeks, his government has purged hundreds of police officials and prosecutors and sought to assert control over the judiciary. The actions, including drafting legislation expanding the government’s power to appoint judges and prosecutors, appeared aimed at derailing a widening corruption investigation that has ensnared many of Mr. Erdogan’s allies, and has resulted in the resignations of three of his senior ministers.

Mr. Erdogan has characterized the investigation as a foreign plot against his government. But in Brussels, there are concerns that he is using the levers of the state to breach judicial independence.

Late Tuesday, the government appeared to continue to purge the judiciary. The Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, led by the justice minister, relocated nearly 100 judges and prosecutors in one of the largest reshuffles in recent weeks.

Earlier in the day in Brussels, European officials appeared at pains to avoid antagonizing Mr. Erdogan. Referring obliquely to recent events in Turkey, Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, said it was « important not to backtrack » on commitments to the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. But while he said he had « shared our concerns » with Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Van Rompuy studiously avoided any direct criticism of what the Turkish prime minister’s opponents describe as a drift toward authoritarianism.

But other European officials say Turkey’s already shaky bid for European Union membership is in peril, and privately officials say relations are very difficult.

Speaking on Monday ahead of Mr. Erdogan’s visit, Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said Turkey’s latest crackdown against the police and judiciary was jeopardizing its chances of joining the European bloc.

« There are numerous questions to which the Europeans have not received any replies, » he told reporters in Brussels. « Demanding that Turkey returns to the rule of law is not just something that can be done, but it’s something that has to be done. »

Mr. Erdogan denied any attempt to control the judiciary, saying views of his country had been distorted by « misinformation and disinformation » spread by unnamed groups who he said were upset by Turkey’s economic success and growing strength.

Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country of 79 million people, began negotiations to join the European bloc in 2005. Both Turkey and the European Union have argued that the nation’s membership would constitute a powerful symbol of the integration between the Muslim world and the West, while providing Europe an anchor of stability in the restive Middle East. But disagreements have festered over the divided island of Cyprus and concerns over human rights, and the negotiations restarted only in November after being suspended for nearly three and a half years.

Turkey has arrested dozens of journalists, in what some critics see as a crackdown on dissent and free speech. Also, the Erdogan government recently passed a draft bill giving it the power to block websites deemed to infringe privacy, as well as to force Internet providers to collect information on their customers’ activities.

Doubts about Turkey’s democratic credentials have intensified in recent weeks, and last year’s bloody crackdown by the government on protesters in Taksim Square in Istanbul drew strong rebukes across Europe.

Mr. Erdogan, a conservative Muslim, has often seemed more at home in Tehran or Baghdad than in Berlin or Paris, and in recent years he has sought to fashion the country as a power in the Middle East. But he has lately expressed a determination to revive Turkey’s relations with Europe.

Turkish officials say they are increasingly frustrated with the open-ended process of European Union accession negotiations and want a specific timetable for entering the bloc. After the union issued a progress report on Turkey in October, Mr. Erdogan could barely conceal his contempt, and he accused the bloc of double standards in its foreign policy.

« Is the European Union’s only issue to prepare a progress report on Turkey? » he asked. « You cannot stand idly by the developments in Syria. The E.U. still doesn’t dare to call a military coup against the elected president in Egypt a coup.

« We sincerely expect the E.U., which sharply criticizes its member countries, should criticize itself and write its own progress report, » he told members of his party in Ankara, Turkey’s capital.

Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat now at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, said the bloc had lost much of its leverage in Turkey.

« In Brussels, there is deep frustration with Erdogan and major concerns about the rule of law, » he said. « But right now, the E.U. has very little leverage in Turkey, and as Turkey gets more and more strident, the E.U. is at a loss on how to react. »

Andrew Higgins contributed reporting from Brussels, and Ceylan Yeginsu from Istanbul.


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