BRUSSELS: Turkey’s embattled leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, refused to budge on a much-criticized reform of the country’s top judicial body on his first EU visit in five years Tuesday.
Visiting EU headquarters, Erdogan stood firm on his controversial response to a massive graft scandal engulfing Turkey.
EU leaders simply noted their concern, calling for respect of the rule of law and the separation of powers and saying they would watch and wait.
At stake is a plan to reform Turkey’s top judicial body, the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), the latest chapter in a weekslong political crisis triggered by a massive corruption investigation that has ensnared key Erdogan allies.
“The judiciary should not go beyond its defined mission and mandate. This is what we’re doing. Anything else is misinformation and disinformation,” Erdogan said at a news conference.
“Certain recommendations have been made by our European friends and we have taken them into account,” the premier added after what was described by all sides as “a lively debate” on the draft judicial reform legislation with EU lawmakers.
“Other modifications possibly will be made,” he added. “But the law must come into force as quickly as possible.”
Erdogan’s response to the graft probe – purging police and prosecutors – has set alarm bells ringing on the state of democracy in Turkey and raised concerns in the EU and elsewhere over his increasingly autocratic actions.
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said he had urged the Turkish leader “not to backtrack on achievements and to assure that the judiciary is able to function without discrimination or preference, in a transparent and impartial manner.”
In response to the graft scandal, Erdogan’s AKP Party had initially called for the government to appoint members of the HSYK, but it later revised the proposals, suggesting instead that they be appointed by MPs in accordance with their parties’ representation in Parliament.
The European Commission, which has demanded to be consulted on the judicial reforms, said Turkey had sent through a copy of the legislation Friday.
“We should handle this in our bilateral talks through our ministers, not over the media,” the prime minister said.
Asked if he had been convinced by Erdogan’s stand, European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said he had had “a very frank and open exchange” about the situation in Turkey.
“I said whatever the problems are, the solutions must be within the limits of European standards,” he said.
Tuesday’s talks also focused on Turkey’s role in the Syria crisis, as well as on trade issues and Turkey’s slow progress toward EU membership.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz said lawmakers had “great recognition of the achievement of Turkey” in taking in 700,000 refugees from Syria while EU nations were harboring 60,000.
“Turkey is making a considerable contribution in bringing peace to the region,” he said.
Erdogan’s visit originally was timed to offer “fresh momentum” to Turkey’s long bid to join the European bloc and Erdogan had insisted 2014 would be a “turning point” in relations with the EU.
The two sides resumed membership negotiations late last year following a three-year freeze and in what was described as “a milestone,” Ankara agreed a pact enabling EU nations to repatriate to Turkey the thousands of migrants who slip illegally across its border into Europe.
New EU Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Muslim-majority Turkey, which has sought for half a century to join the European club, hoped to get a timeline for negotiations to ensure last year’s momentum is not “open-ended.”
But the ambition has been clouded by Turkey’s political ructions, which come on the heels of massive anti-government protests in June and have sent its financial markets into free fall.