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January 14, 2014, Tuesday

Erdoğan and the EU: a love affair turned sour

With turmoil in its southern neighborhood, a crisis with Ukraine and difficult relations with Russia, the last thing the European Union needed was trouble in Turkey.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened in the events that have been playing out since Dec. 17 of last year. Not only is the EU surround by unstable and unpredictable states, its role model for the countries of the Arab world has suddenly evaporated. The once-reliable Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is no more, as he has increasingly taken up authoritarian tendencies and become a liability.

It's even more of a pity, given that just two months ago Turkey-EU relations were beginning to warm up. In October the negotiating chapter on regional policy was opened after some three-and-a-half years of frozen accession talks, while in December talks were launched for visa liberalization following Turkey's signing of a readmission agreement with the EU. It was hoped that 2014 would bring more positive developments with further chapters being opened, particularly the 23rd and 24th, which cover fundamental rights and freedoms. Unfortunately, it is likely that current events have thrown cold water on this. With all the democratic back-tracking, it seems unlikely that Turkey will meet the relevant opening criteria.

Erdoğan is due to visit Brussels on Jan. 21. Despite some speculation, the visit is unlikely to be canceled. So far, senior EU officials have not been incredibly critical of what is happening in Turkey. Yes, there have been some statements, but the toughest have come from members of the European Parliament and were not welcomed in Ankara. Last week the European Commission issued a statement expressing its unease, saying, "The recent steps [removing, reassigning or firing police officers and investigators] are a matter of concern." Later, via Twitter, Stefan Füle, European commissioner for enlargement, asked the Turkish authorities to be consulted on the controversial judicial bill on Parliament's agenda related to the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) to ensure that it is in line with EU legislation.

Yet, while Erdoğan seems to think he has done nothing wrong and believes he is able to handle public perceptions in Turkey, in the EU the situation is different. Nobody is buying his conspiracy theories or talk about a parallel state. Most believe they are now dealing with a prime minister who has become so drunk with power that he believes himself to be invincible and will do literally anything to keep hold of power. 2013 will be remembered as the year of conspiracy theories and foreign plotting. This became evident first in May, during the Gezi Park protests, and now since December, when Erdoğan more or less declared war on the judiciary. Along with a large-scale purge of the police, prosecutors and bureaucrats, the government has also gone after the press, although media freedom in Turkey was already in a dismal state, but certainly not dead, despite government pressure on many journalists. Thanks to coverage from the non-government-controlled press and social media -- in particular Twitter -- there can be no hiding what is happening these days.

Today, Erdoğan's relationship with the EU could be defined as a love affair turned sour. When Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had their first landslide victory in November 2002, the EU was optimistic. After years of coalition government, it looked like Turkey was finally heading for sustained political stability. Thereafter, Erdoğan impressed the world with a dynamic reform agenda, the rise of the Turkish economy and a commitment to tackling issues that had been taboo, such as the Kurdish issue. Yet, rather like a marriage, ultimately the honeymoon period ended, although to begin with this had more do to with the EU's insincere handing of the accession process than with Turkey.

The EU should urge Turkey to adhere to the rule of law and ensure that allegations of wrongdoing are addressed without discrimination or preference in a transparent and impartial manner. Turkey is important for the EU, and the level of interdependence is increasing. The EU wants a reliable partner, not a loose cannon. Unfortunately we presently have the latter.

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