The EU, which Turkey aspires to join, has expressed criticism over a series of government measures in the wake of a corruption investigation that broke out with a wave of detentions on Dec. 17, 2013, according to a report by Today’s Zaman.
The dozens of people detained, all of whom were subsequently released, included sons of now-former ministers and businessmen and officials close to the government.
The government characterized the probe as a “coup attempt,” which it blamed on the Hizmet movement of Turkish-Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen and its foreign collaborators and reassigned thousands of police officers as well as dozens of judges and prosecutors in what was seen to be an attempt to stifle the investigation.
Füle lamented that the developments in Turkey’s accession process over the past months were a “cause for concern and disappointment.” He condemned the transfers of police officers, judges and prosecutors, saying they “constitute a risk to the proper conduct of investigations into alleged corruption” and urged Turkey to “take all the necessary measures to ensure that allegations of wrongdoing are addressed in a transparent and impartial manner.”
In the weeks following the eruption of the corruption probe, the government also introduced a number of controversial laws which critics say undermine the separation of powers and the rule of law. There were changes to the law on the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), which is in charge of appointments of senior judges and prosecutors, and expanded government control over the Internet, amid the release of voice recordings implicating people in the inner circle of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in bribery and corruption.
Bans on the micro-blogging site Twitter and the video-sharing website YouTube followed the change to legislation covering government control of access to online content. The ban on Twitter was lifted by a Constitutional Court decision that has been heavily criticized by the government, while YouTube remains blocked despite lower court decisions ordering the ban to be lifted.
Füle criticized the HSYK and Internet laws. “On the judiciary, the new legislation transferred significant powers over the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors to the Ministry of Justice.
This development reverses a previous reform elaborated in consultation with the European Union and the Council of Europe [CoE]. The changes raise serious concerns over the independence and impartiality of the judiciary and over the separation of powers in Turkey,” he said of the HSYK law.
Commenting on the Internet law, he criticized the new legislation on the basis of concerns over the freedom of expression.
“I regret that the new law on the Internet gives arbitrary power to the telecommunications authority (TIB). The lack of sufficient protection or legal safeguards of the affected parties is also worrying. The recent ban on social media proves that these concerns are justified,” he said.
“Let me reiterate that the right to freedom of expression includes the freedom to receive and impart information and ideas in the public interest without disproportionate interference by public authority. Any limitations should be proportionate as outlined by the European Court of Human Rights [ECtHR].”
Turkish EU Affairs Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who replaced Egemen Bağış after he had to resign due to his implication in the corruption case, attended the parliamentary meeting of the EU and Turkey. Reflecting the growing European complaints, Ria Oomen-Ruijten, the European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur, characterized the discussions with Çavuşoğlu as “frank” and “tough” on her Twitter account. “My statement: don’t adjust framework [of] rule of law to political taste!” she wrote.
Çavuşoğlu arrived in Brussels on Wednesday, but during his two-day stay, he had talks with only one senior EU official, Füle.
The Turkish delegation also requested a meeting with Viviane Reding, the vice-president of the EU Commission and commissioner responsible for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, but her office declined the request, the BBC Turkish service said in a report on Thursday. The report quoted Çavuşoğlu confirming that Reding had declined the meeting request.
“Why she does not [want to] meet, you have to ask this question to her. This is not a constructive approach and we cannot be held responsible for this,” he told BBC Turkish.
The developments since Dec. 17 have derailed what otherwise appeared to be positive momentum in Turkey’s slow-moving EU accession process. Before the scandal broke out, Turkey and the EU had agreed to open talks on negotiating a chapter in the fall after a three-year hiatus and begin talks that are hoped to culminate in visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to EU countries.
On Thursday, Füle made it clear that the current mechanism of cooperation between the EU and Turkey needs to be changed to make room for tighter EU monitoring of political developments at a technical level.
“I believe we already need to change the way in which we cooperate as regards the accession negotiations. This is particularly important for the areas of the rule of law and fundamental rights. We need to intensify our dialogue at all phases of policy and law making on these issues which are at the very centre of the accession process,” said Füle. “They must be treated as an absolute priority. We also need to work closely on the assessment of the existing legislation. As a candidate country committed to bring its accession process forward, Turkey must be fully aware of European Union standards and best practices.”
The EU has repeatedly urged the Turkish government to consult it before pressing through controversial legislation, but the Turkish response has been unfavorable.
He said Turkey and the EU should continue cooperation under the current framework of a “positive agenda,” but that “regular political monitoring at technical level should complement our dialogue” as well.
Turkish and EU officials had recently agreed on what the EU calls “peer review” on freedom of expression, which Füle said could take an in-depth look at issues such as the implementation of the new lnternet legislation. The EU plans similar reviews on the HSYK and the Turkish criminal justice system, which, according to Füle, would allow the EU to “assess the independence, efficiency and the impartiality of the judiciary.”