ANKARA: Turkey sought Monday to downplay the risk of a rupture in ties with the European Union, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan headed to Brussels facing the worst crisis of his 11-year rule.
European officials have voiced deep concern about the state of democracy in Turkey and the independence of its institutions after the government moved to tighten its control on the judiciary in the wake of a vast corruption probe.
EU Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu insisted that Muslim-majority Turkey, which has sought for decades to join the European club, wants to be a full and equal EU member.
“We hope, we wish and we believe that the process concerning the HSYK will not provoke a serious crisis with the EU,” Cavusoglu said in an interview with the Milliyet newspaper, referring to the top judicial body the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors.
“[Turkey] has so far fulfilled its obligations in a determined fashion and will continue to do so,” he also told reporters, conceding however that there were “some difficulties” in aspects of the membership talks.
Erdogan’s trip to Brussels – his first in five years – was intended to highlight a new era in EU-Turkey ties after the resumption of accession talks last year following a three-year freeze.
But it has been overshadowed by the graft scandal rocking Erdogan and his government’s subsequent mass purge of police and the judiciary, which critics see as a bid to stifle the investigation.
The sons of three government ministers were detained in a seies of police raids in December, along with several business leaders, on an array of allegations including bribery in construction projects, gold smuggling and illicit dealings with Iran.
The government has accused supporters of an erstwhile ally, exiled Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, of acting as a “state within a state” and instigating the probe as a “coup plot” ahead of key elections this year.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had said Sunday that all issues were on the table at the EU, but defended the government’s response to the corruption scandal.
“If there is anything that stands contradictory to EU standards, we will listen to this,” said Davutoglu, who will accompany Erdogan on the two-day visit.
Cavusoglu also insisted that the judicial reforms, which are set to be debated by Turkey’s parliament Tuesday, were in keeping with the EU’s standards.
“We understand that this initiative has triggered some discussion but we are going to explain the merits of this reform,” he told Milliyet.
Turkey has also come under fire for a series of recent measures that rights groups say reflect an increasingly authoritarian tone from Erdogan and pose a threat to freedom and human rights in the traditionally secular society.
A controversial bill making it a crime for doctors to provide emergency first aid without government approval came into force Saturday.
Critics fear it could be used to bar doctors and workers from treating protesters wounded in anti-government demonstrations, as reportedly happened during June protests.
While Turkey first sought to join Europe in 1959, formal membership talks only began in 2005 before hitting stumbling blocks, including a territorial dispute with member state Cyprus and opposition from heavyweights France and Germany.