x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Erdogan will risk EU ire to please his core voters

Several EU member states voice reservations on Turkey's accession bid, citing the Turkish police's brutal action against demonstrators.

ISTANBUL // European Union foreign ministers yesterday discussed Turkey's accession bid after weeks of mass anti-government protests in the country that have triggered new tensions in its troubled relations with the bloc.

Several member states voiced reservations at the meeting in Luxembourg, citing the Turkish police's brutal action against demonstrators, but the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said a decision about renewing the accession process could come today or later this week.

German delegation sources said Mr Westerwelle was trying to hammer out a compromise in talks with other EU politicians and the Turkish government.

In attempts to calm tensions, Egemen Bagis, Turkey's minister for EU affairs, invited European ambassadors for a meeting in Ankara today, while foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country remained committed to Europe.

"Turkey still wants to be a part of the EU," Mr Davutoglu said.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, yesterday rejected criticism of the way Turkish police dealt with the unrest, which was sparked by a building project in Istanbul but which protesters say also targets the premier's authoritarian rule.

Mr Erdogan said last week that he no longer recognised the EU parliament, after the body criticised the use of disproportionate force by the police.

Analysts say Mr Erdogan hardened his position towards Europe because he is trying to shore up support from conservative voters ahead of elections next year.

Before the unrest began, Turkey and the EU had agreed in principle to open talks on regional policy, one of 34 chapters that Ankara has to comply with in accession talks. Turkey so far has only opened 13 chapters, partly because some EU countries oppose its accession in principle.

Germany and other EU countries have thrown doubt on the new chapter, prompting Turkey to warn of negative consequences.

Turkey started EU membership talks in 2005 but has made little headway since.

In a highly unusual tit for tat exchange, Turkey and Germany last week summoned their respective ambassadors after the government in Ankara criticised the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, for saying she was "appalled" by Turkish police tactics.

Turkey has been rocked by more than three weeks of anti-government protests. A total of 2.5 million people have taken part in protest marches all over the country, according to the interior ministry. Five people died and about 8,000 were injured in clashes between police and protesters, said the Turkish Medical Association.

News reports say Turkey could recall its EU ambassador for consultations or even freeze dialogue with Brussels altogether, a step last taken in 1997, when the EU refused to accept Turkey as an accession candidate. The country became a candidate two years later.

Analysts say Mr Erdogan, who is preparing for local elections next March and a bid for the presidency next summer, appeared to be ready to risk good relations with the EU in an effort to make conservative voters happy.

"That's how it looks to me," said Soli Ozel, a political scientist at Istanbul's Kadir Has University. "Or this is high-wire brinkmanship."

The hard line taken by Mr Erdogan in EU matters mirrors his general election strategy to portray his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as the defender of patriotism and conservative social values. He has described protesters as "looters" and has taken a strong stance against the protest movement.

Murat Somer, a political scientist at Istanbul's Koc University, said the AKP had always benefited from using a degree of polarisation between more religious and more secular parts of the country, working to establish "the image of representing the 'disempowered pious majority'".

"Erdogan seems to interpret the AKP's electoral victories as the confirmation of his Islamic ideology and world view by the majority of the Turkish society," he said.

"The hardline discourse also serves him to sideline his 'more moderate' rivals within the party who think that the party should continue to appeal to more secular and liberal voters and maintain popularity with external allies such as the EU."

But Mensur Akgun, a political scientist at Istanbul's Kultur University, said Mr Erdogan's was aware of the limits to his tactics. Prof Akgun noted that some polls indicated a drop in the popularity of the AKP and of Mr Erdogan himself. "If this is vindicated by his own pollsters, he will change within weeks" and take a softer line, he said.

Changing course would not be a problem for Mr Erdogan, he said. "He is extremely flexible and pragmatic."


* With additional reporting by Reuters