ANKARA – Turkey’s embattled Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Brussels late Monday, hoping to put his country’s EU accession talks back on track amid upheaval at home over his hotly contested judicial reforms.
Erdogan’s trip to Brussels — his first in five years — has been overshadowed by a graft scandal and his government’s subsequent mass purge of police and the judiciary, which critics see as a pre-emptive bid to stifle the investigation.
Some 2,000-3,000 supporters of the Turkish prime minister gathered in front of a Brussels hotel as he arrived, waving Turkish flags in a festive display. They dispersed calmly before midnight, police said, after Erdogan addressed them.
Before boarding his flight to the Belgian capital he sought to downplay the risk of a crisis with the European Union.
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 of the judiciary following a vast corruption probe.
Erdogan insisted 2014 would be a “turning point” in Turkey’s relations with the EU, after the resumption of membership talks late last year following a three-year freeze.
But he told reporters before leaving that the government would not back down its plans to reform the top judicial body, the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), and that it would move ahead with a “brave” reform agenda this year.
Earlier, in Ankara, new EU Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Muslim-majority Turkey, which has sought for decades to join the European club, would be pushing in Brussels for a timeline for negotiations to ensure that the process is not “open-ended.”
“We hope, we wish and we believe that the process concerning the HSYK will not provoke a serious crisis with the EU,” Cavusoglu said, although he conceded that there were “some difficulties” in aspects of the membership talks.
The sons of three cabinet ministers were detained in a series 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 Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) has accused an erstwhile ally, exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, of acting as a “state within a state” and instigating the probe as a “coup plot” ahead of key elections this year.
“Our visit to Brussels will provide us with the opportunity to explain to our counterparts what’s happening in Turkey in the most accurate and most impartial way,” Erdogan said. “God willing, the game of this treacherous network will be destroyed.”
The political ructions, which come on the heels of massive antigovernment protests in June, have also sent Turkish financial markets into free fall and cast doubt on economic forecasts for growth and inflation.
The lira slid further Monday to 2.2442 against the dollar and 3.0441 against the euro as markets awaited news from the central bank’s monetary policy meeting on Tuesday.
Many commentators predicted a difficult visit for Erdogan to the EU headquarters.
“Mr. Erdogan would have done better to scrap his Brussels visit,” the daily newspaper Taraf said in an editorial.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had said Sunday that all issues were on the table at the EU, adding: “If there is anything that stands contradictory to EU standards, we will listen to this.”
President Abdullah Gul stepped in to resolve the deadlock by pushing for any reforms of the HSYK to be enshrined in constitutional amendments that would require cross-party support.
The European Commission, which has demanded to be consulted on the judicial reforms, said Turkey had sent through a copy of the legislation on Friday.
“This is a very positive gesture,” said a commission source, while refraining from commenting directly on the contents of the bill.
Turkey has also come under fire for a series of recent measures that rights groups say reflect an increasingly authoritarian stance from Erdogan, and which pose a threat to freedom and human rights in Turkey’s traditionally secular society.
A controversial bill that makes it a crime for doctors to provide emergency first aid without government authorisation came into force on Saturday — a measure critics say is designed to prevent treatment of protesters.
Parliament is also debating a bill aimed at introducing curbs on Internet access, sparking an outcry over further moves to clamp down on freedom of speech.
While Turkey first sought to join Europe in 1959, formal membership talks only began in 2005, and have hit several stumbling blocks, including a territorial dispute with member state Cyprus and opposition from heavyweights France and Germany.