Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sets off for Brussels on Jan. 21 — for the first time after five years — at the invitation of EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. He is to have talks with EU officials, including the presidents of the political groups of the European Parliament. The prime minister is scheduled to have bilateral meetings with Barroso, President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy and European Parliament President Martin Schulz.
The visit was planned some time ago due to the newly recovered momentum in Turkey-EU relations with the recent start of a visa liberalization dialogue in exchange for a readmission agreement with the EU.
However, Erdoğan’s visit may not witness heartwarming moments due to a number of developments that have shaken Turkey recently. The prime minister’s meetings may be marred by criticism leveled against his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government due to its handling of the corruption probe.
When the corruption investigation was made public on Dec. 17, Erdoğan sought to discredit the investigation by calling it a “foreign plot” and an “attempt to damage the government made by a parallel state nested within the state.” Dozens of people, including businessmen close to the government and the sons of three former ministers, were detained as part of the probe. Twenty-four of them were later arrested. In order to prevent the probe from deepening, the prime minister ordered the removal of thousands of police officers and tens of prosecutors who contributed to the probe. Furthermore, Erdoğan’s government issued a bill to restructure the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), the country’s key judicial council that is responsible for appointments, promotions and removals in the judiciary.
The proposal, according to its critics, seeks to subordinate the HSYK to the government by boosting the dominance of the justice minister over the HSYK and thus curbing the authority of the board. The bill will give the government a tighter grip on the judiciary, according to critics.
All these developments have heightened worries in the EU about the erosion of judicial independence in Turkey, which has been a candidate for membership since 2005.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on Sunday said Turkey is open to any kind of criticism from Europe but that criticism should not seek to discriminate against Turkey. “All criticism should remain within EU norms,” he said. The minister also said Turkey would listen to EU criticism if the Turkish government’s HSYK proposal is found to be against EU standards but added that the government, in response, would show how boards of judges and prosecutors in EU-member countries function, implying that the structure the Turkish government is planning to give to the HSYK will not be any different from the boards of judges and prosecutors of EU countries.
Several European officials Erdoğan is planning to meet in Brussels have already expressed their uneasiness at the way the Turkish government has handled the corruption probe. The criticisms are mainly focused on concerns over the independence of the judiciary, separation of powers and the impartiality and transparency of the investigation. In early January, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks said via a tweet that the independence of the Turkish judiciary would be at risk with the new proposals. The tweet, which was later issued as a statement, said, “Proposals to curb the powers of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors represent a serious setback for the independence of the judiciary in Turkey.”
Turkey-EU Joint Parliamentary Committee member Andrew Duff warned on Jan. 13 that the developments following the corruption operation carry the risk of halting Turkey’s membership negotiation process with the EU.
In addition, on Jan. 14, Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, said Erdoğan’s “parallel state” theory, which he has been using to explain away corruption charges, is not convincing. He also said he would tell Erdoğan that he had served his country well but is now damaging its reputation.
It is, for now, a source of mystery as to how the prime minister will respond if he faces criticism during his talks with EU officials. Yet, there are things to suggest that he may not take that criticism well. One of his deputy prime ministers last week, for example, said it is not right for the EU to criticize the AK Party’s proposed changes to the judicial system. “It is not right for the EU to make a statement, criticize or talk about a proposed legislation that is being debated in the Turkish Parliament,” said Bülent Arınç.
Ankara began accession talks with the EU in 2005, but progress has been slow since then due to the Cyprus problem and opposition from major EU countries, including France and Germany, to Turkish membership. Turkey and the EU ended a three-year hiatus in negotiations in the autumn by opening talks on a new negotiating chapter. Diplomatic efforts are also under way to clear the way for the restart of talks between Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders on reunification of the island.
Though welcoming the opening of the talks on the new chapter, namely Chapter 22 on regional policy, Ankara is pressing Brussels for further progress in the accession process by giving the green light for the opening of talks on at least two more chapters — Chapters 23 and 24 on rights and freedoms, and justice and security.
There are claims that European officials will ask the Turkish prime minister to bring his country’s legislation into harmony with amendments as required by the 2010 referendum. Although more than three years have passed, the government has shown a lackluster performance in continuing with the reforms required for democratization.
The Turkish public approved the 26 amendments to the constitution, which was drafted in 1982 during the military era, with a landslide vote in September 2010. Yet, more than three years later, some of the pieces of legislation on which Parliament must act for these amendments to be implemented have not even been submitted by the AK Party government.
One of the major steps to be taken for such harmonization is the enactment of a law on the privacy of personal information and data. The law is also a requirement for Turkey’s bid to become a member of the European Union. In 2012, the EU Progress Report stated that “with regard to respect for private and family life and, in particular, the right to protection of personal data, Turkey needs to align its legislation with the data protection acquis and set up a fully independent data protection supervisory authority.”
Following the approval of the constitutional amendment package in the referendum, Parliament passed amendments to the Law on Unions and Collective Bargaining in attempts to harmonize the law with the package. However, the amendments did not satisfy most labor unions, which said the government “deceived” them by not making the amendments that had been promised in the constitutional amendment package.
The government has also been criticized for not establishing the Economic and Social Council despite the fact that it was granted legal status after the referendum.
The AK Party government also was under fire after the Court of Accounts failed to submit proper reports about spending of state institutions in 2012 and 2013. The court was prevented from fully auditing government institutions and ministries for 2012 due to a lack of cooperation from the relevant institutions. Similarly, the court did not send audit reports to the parliamentary Budget Commission last November. Opposition parties strongly protested, saying the Court of Accounts is cooperating — by not sending audit reports — with the government so that the government would not be held accountable for its spending.
Lack of transparency in Turkish state institutions is a long-standing problem. The current Court of Accounts Law was adopted in late 2010 with the hope that it would introduce a more transparent process into the oversight of public institutions and spending, including that of the military. The 2010 law, which was passed in a Parliament dominated by an AK Party majority, allows the court to monitor all public institutions.
But over the past two years, the government, seemingly uncomfortable with the court’s new auditing powers, has made several attempts to amend the law. This has led to criticism of the AK Party. In the progress report on Turkey released in mid-October of 2013, the European Commission (EC) expressed concern about the proposal to amend to the Court of Accounts Law. The EC report said that the new law could “distort” the court’s mandate and that it “raises serious concerns about the independence and effectiveness” of the court.