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30th Sep 2016

Boy's death spurs anti-Erdogan feeling in EU parliament

  • The BBC reports that Turkish police hit a man in the face with a tear gas can outside Elvan's hospital (Photo: Tilemahos Efthimiadis)

EU support for going further in Turkey accession talks is ebbing away over Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly brutal ways of keeping down dissent.

MEPs and EU officials at a debate in Strasbourg on Tuesday (11 March) paid tribute to Berkin Elvan, a teenage boy who died earlier the same day in a hospital in Ankara after 269 days in a coma.

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His injury was caused by being hit in the head with a tear gas canister when going to buy bread during anti-government protests last summer.

But Turkish police on Tuesday fired more tear gas at the 2,000 or so demonstrators outside Elvan's hospital, hitting one man in the face, the BBC reports.

Similar protests and student sit-ins, with some people carrying symbolic loaves of bread, also took place in the cities of Antalya, Istanbul, and Izmir.

The government is likely to be tested again on Wednesday when people mark Elvan’s funeral.

The Strasbourg debate noted the Elvan case is symptomatic of a wider trend in Erdogan’s rule, which includes imposing political control on judges, jailing critical reporters, and threatening to block people from using YouTube and Twitter.

For his part, EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele said the boy's death is “a sad but important reminder of Turkish people’s aspirations” to live in a European society.

He noted that “in the coming weeks” he will propose a new process in which EU officials in Ankara screen Turkish legislation before it is adopted.

He also called for EU countries to lift their veto on opening Chapter 23 of the accession rulebook, on the judiciary and fundamental rights, to help him tackle the issues more thoroughly.

“This is what Turkey is asking for, so let’s take their word for it and deliver results on this crucial issue … You can’t keep saying we should be doing more on one side, but then being more restrictive on accession talks,” he noted.

His ideas met with little sympathy, however.

Speaking for the Greek EU presidency and for member states in general, Greek deputy foreign minister Dimitrios Kourkoulas said it is up to Erdogan to show good will, not the other way round.

“Opening chapters is not an end in itself,” he noted.

“Turkey knows what it must do … the pace of negotiations will depend on Turkey’s ability and willingness to go forward and if we are to move then certain reforms will have to be undertaken.”

Ria Oomen-Ruijten, a Dutch centre-right MEP, noted that despite the crackdown which caused Elvan’s death, relations were moving in a positive direction until December, when Erdogan removed prosecutors and police investigating corruption in his clan.

Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a German Liberal, said: “There are more journalists in jail [in Turkey] than in China or Iran and now the Prime Minister wants to close down YouTube and Twitter because people are saying things he doesn’t like.”

“Relations between Turkey and the EU have gotten worse and this process [accesssion] needs to be deferred until Turkey cleans up its act.”

Fuele tweeted after the Strasbourg meeting: “Tonight's debate in the #EP showed that #Turkey is losing its supporters.”

Andrew Duff, a British Liberal deputy, added: “Most pessimistic EP debate I can recall about #Turkey.”

Erdogan himself in January visited the EU capital for the first time in five years to try to mend fences.

But he was unapologetic for his judicial changes and blamed unrest on a conspiracy by Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic guru living in the US.

Turkish diplomats in his EU mission in Brussels have voiced embarassment over his behaviour in private meetings with EU counterparts.

But diplomatic sources say the EU has lost its leverage with the nomenklatura in Ankara due to scepticism the Union will ever admit Turkey as a member.

Meanwhile, Gulen, who had stayed out of the spotlight for several years, redoubled his attack on Erdogan on Tuesday.

"We are passing through difficult days, days in which the state, which should be reinforced with common sense and reconciliation, is instead overcome by anger and rancour," he said in a comment for the Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman.

He blamed Elvan's death on Erdogan's "bellicose rhetoric," which, he said, enflamed last summer’s protests.

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