Opinion

Ankara turmoil shows need for new EU initiative

21.01.14 @ 09:37

  1. By Graham Watson

BRUSSELS - With Greece holding the EU Presidency for the next six months, the prospects for EU Turkey relations look poor.

  • 'The corruption scandal is undermining confidence in Turkish democracy at home and abroad' (Photo: EUobserver)

Speaking of EU enlargement as he introduced his Presidency's programme to MEPs, Greece's PM Antonis Samaras did not even mention this applicant. Yet it is precisely because of the turmoil in Ankara that a new EU initiative is needed.

The corruption scandal that is fast becoming a political crisis is undermining confidence in Turkish democracy at home and abroad. Committed to the political criteria of EU accession, which include the rule of law, Turkey faces harsh criticism for its handling of the investigation into corruption involving senior officials.

A government which has achieved extraordinary reform, overseen huge social progress and developed an impressive international presence is now on the ropes.

A referendum in 2010 showed 58 per cent of Turkish voters in favour of a new civilian constitution: it has not yet been drafted.

The impressive, almost manic, energy behind a ten year reform process has evaporated. Some detect patterns of authoritarianism in the government's relations with the business community and the media, and - during the Gezi Park protests - towards people protesting.

The anti-corruption investigation opened on 17 December brought the resignation within days of four government ministers. Its fallout is still highly toxic. Graft charges brought by State prosecutors against figures close to Prime Minister Erdogan are dismissed by him as an attempted coup d'etat.

The charges against the Prime Minister's son cast a shadow over his prospects of continuing in office. Clear disrespect for the separation of powers in his handling of the crisis has put appalling pressure on prosecutors leading the case and led to the firing, reassigning, harrassing and threatening of scores of high-ranking police officers.

Allegations of a “foreign plot” allow the prime minister to paint himself victim of an international operation blamed on his former reformist allies in the Gülen movement.

Transparency and accountability

Erdogan and his team should know that the only legitimate way to expose conspiracies is to carry governance onto liberal ground and highlight transparency and accountability.

The path he is treading merely reinforces the impression of high corruption and the subordination of the judiciary to the executive.

The government’s proposal to restructure the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors, the body responsible for judicial appointments, as a response to the ongoing investigation sparks concerns that the executive branch seeks a tighter grip on the judiciary, a clear infringement of the separation of powers which underpins modern western democracies.

Erdogan's instruction to the country's diplomats to tell the world that Turkey and its national interests are the target of the corruption allegations and to accuse his detractors of 'treachery' is unlikely to allay concerns abroad.

Neither Turkey nor her western allies would benefit from such a concentration of power. Indeed, it would doubtless lead to an early split in the ruling AK (Truth and Justice) Party between the liberals reformers who sense a danger to liberal democracy and the more religiously inspired forces who continue to back Erdogan.

Turkey needs to adhere to the rule of law and ensure that allegations of wrongdoing are addressed without discrimination or preference, as EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle stressed to MEPs. In the end, the courts rather than voters must determine the outcome of the crisis.

But the EU can help in this. By insisting during Erdogan's visit to Brussels this week on due process: by keeping open the negotiations on Turkey's EU accession but stressing - before opening further talks - the need for implementation of reforms already approved in the Grand National Assembly; and by making a move to speed up normalisation of relations with Northern Cyprus. Together, these would help Turkey through this difficult stage of its development.

Might the leadership which has steered Greece so boldly through its domestic reform travails have the breadth of vision to recognise and seize this opportunity with Ankara? It would be the best payback possible for the solidarity which EU partners have extended to Athens.

The writer is President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party