Turkey corruption crisis spoils ‘new momentum’ in EU ties

A pro-Kurdish demonstrator scuffles with riot police during the first anniversary of the killing of three Kurdish activists in Istanbul January 9, 2014. (REUTERS/Osman Orsal)

BRUSSELS: Days before a long-awaited visit to EU headquarters by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s ongoing political crisis risks undermining his hopes for 2014 to be “the year of the EU,” analysts say.

After a half-century march toward the European Union, Erdogan rung in the new year wishing that “2014 will be a year in which full membership talks with the EU and the democratization reforms will speed up.”

But the political turmoil currently convulsing Turkey bodes ill for such hopes.

“Last year there was a promising momentum,” an EU source said on condition of anonymity. “Events now risk spoiling that momentum.”

EU nations agreed in October to restart membership talks with Turkey after a three-year freeze.

Within six weeks there were fresh signs of a thaw in the often strained ties between the 28-nation bloc and the predominantlyMuslim nation.

In what was described only weeks ago as a “milestone” in EU-Turkish relations, Ankara in December finally signed a migrant pact enabling EU nations to repatriate to Turkey the thousands of migrants who slip illegally across its border into Europe.

With anti-immigration feeling on the rise in jobless-hit Europe, the deal to fence off the crossroads between Europe and Asia was deemed crucial ahead of EU elections in May.

It led to promises of more progress in bilateral ties and opened the way for Erdogan’s first visit in three years to the EU capital, a visit still due to go ahead on Jan. 21 despite his mass purge of senior police in Turkey, EU officials said.

But with the premier embroiled in the country’s worst crisis in more than a decade, “it’s becoming difficult to imagine Mr. Erdogan regaining the political dominance” he long enjoyed, said Georges Koumousakos, a Greek member of the European Parliament who is a member of the EU-Turkey group.

“It therefore becomes difficult to imagine what progress can be made in relations between the EU and Turkey,” he told AFP.

Turkey and the EU signed an association agreement as far back as 1963 but although almost half of its trade currently is with the bloc, official membership negotiations only began in 2005 and have made very little progress.

Accession talks require an aspirant country to bring its legislation into line with European norms on everything from the rule of law to border management.

Though Erdogan is credited with a burst of democratic reforms, Turkey has opened only 14 of 35 chapters, or sets of rules, with the EU, and completed only one. Croatia, which began talks at the same time, last July became the bloc’s 28th member.

At this month’s high-level talks with the heads of the European Commission and Council, Erdogan notably had been hoping for progress in opening two new chapters.

“The Commission still believes it is best to continue to engage with Turkey on rule of law reforms and the like,” said an EU official who asked not to be identified.

“But we don’t know whether the member states will want to continue given events in Turkey.”

The widening corruption scandal engulfing Erdogan has rocked his government to its very core just weeks before local elections in March, and sent Turkish financial markets tumbling.

“The crisis has shown that there’s no rule of law to talk about in Turkey,” said local analyst Can Baydarol. “Turkey skeptics within the EU may use the turmoil as a justification to suspend negotiations.”

“Turkey is losing much of the international prestige it had gained from a decade of economic success and political stability,” Carnegie Europe analystMarc Pierini said.

Democratic reforms during Erdogan’s 11 years at the helm and Turkey’s key role as neighbour to Syria amid efforts to avoid crisis in the Middle East have helped move forward Ankara’s drawn-out campaign to prise open the EU door.

But the European Union this week for the second time cautioned Erdogan that it was watching events with “concern.”

“We are amazed and fear there may be worse to come,” an EU diplomat said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 10, 2014, on page 9.




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