Turkey–EU Relations May Be A Casualty of Gezi Park

Erdogan’s mismanagement of Gezi Park crisis has spilled-over into Turkey’s relations with the European Union. 

al-monitor Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (R) talks with European Union enlargement commissioner Stefan Füle before the Istanbul Conference of the Ministry For EU Affairs in Istanbul, June 7, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Osman Orsal.

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turkey, twitter, tweets, police

Jun 14, 2013

While the high tensions caused by the Gezi Park unrest and excessive police operations showed some signs of easing, their political spillover on Turkish-EU relations are fully exposed.

Taking a rough defensive position, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and some of his ministers in recent days engaged in a harsh duel of words with key EU officials and political figures in Brussels, some of whom have been known as “Turkey’s friends in Europe.” If the battle continues, as many observers predict, Turkey’s already limping accession process for EU membership may be impaired further.

The rift was already out in the open when Stefan Füle, the commissioner for enlargement, showed some “understanding” with “Occupy Gezi” protesters and posted openly critical statements against Erdogan while participating at an official meeting on the EU in Istanbul.

“Disappointed by the lost opportunity at the #Istanbul conference to reach out to those calling for respect & inclusive dialogue,” Füle, a Czech, tweeted.

Erdogan “welcomes democratic demands but won't give in to terror & vandalism,” Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s chief negotiator with the EU, seated not far from Füle, tweeted back angrily.

This swift correspondence was enough to help predict the all-out political battle in the days to come.

As the clashes escalated in and around Taksim Square between the furious crowds and pepper-spray-happy police, so did the emotions in the European Parliament and the EU Commission. Concerns were apparently so high, they were strong enough to unify various political blocs, but also drew support from individuals and groups known for their staunch backing for Turkey’s full membership.

Although a bit toned down compared with the day before, the overall tone of the text ratified was severe enough to irritate the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. It was the toughest critique in many years, and it put on full display all the problematic dimensions of Gezi Park crisis: Police brutality and excessive use of tear gas, the halting of democratization, disrespect for freedom of speech and assembly, intolerance for dissent and the excessive self-censorship in the media controlled by greedy proprietors.

A few hours after the resolution, it was Hannes Swoboda’s turn. The leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats — the left — demanded: “More violence is the last thing Turkey needs now. Dialogue, not riot police!" 

Ankara’s reactions to the European Parliament resolution were to make a comparison that was  as disproportionate as the police violence the text detailed. In a new fit of fury, Erdogan rebuffed all criticism, attacking the union with full force, as well as Füle and Swoboda personally.

“How can you pass such a decision on Turkey, which isn't even an EU member but a candidate? How dare you?” he said. “They have this guy (Füle) in charge of enlargement. He couldn’t offer the slightest counterargument while he was with me, but then he tweets. Is this ethical?” he asked, to wild applause of the crowd.

Comments from Swoboda came soon after in another tweet: “The reaction of Erdogan to resolution of EU Parliament shows that he still does not know what Europe and its values mean!” the Austrian socialist responded.

Bagis, the Turkish chief negotiator, fired back: “Some parliamentarians should understand that there is a price to pay for talking this comfortably and daringly about Turkey's internal matters,” he said in a statement. “Turkey is not a banana republic.”

While many observers at that stage started asking themselves whether or not Erdogan’s earlier attack on Twitter as “menace to all societies” applied truly as a “menace to good politics,” it was Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s turn to raise the stakes. In a tough statement, Turkey’s foreign minister said no country can teach Turkey a democracy lesson, let alone issue what he called “one-sided” resolutions. He declared the EP vote “null and void” and said that when the text reached Ankara, it would be immediately rejected and returned.

The row has certainly exposed a huge gap of political cultures between the EU and Ankara, an issue which had been hidden under the tip of the iceberg, as it has added to the concerns that the immediate challenge is to develop a civilized language which is so lacking in all channels, also including dialogue with the two opposition parties at the center and right, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

But a more serious issue is that the massive duel of words has landed on a critical juncture: On June 26, the EU is expected to open a new chapter with Turkey, after three years of total frost. It may still happen, but it is clear that the AKP government has lost much of its political support amongst the socialists, greens, liberals and even conservatives, who have expressed shock over what they see as an “ugly face of authoritarianism.” The European Commission, meanwhile, is busy repairing what remains of a battle.

Also on the EU front, it seems clear, Erdogan shot himself in the foot with more than a few bullets. Such damage can be caused only by missiles.

Yavuz Baydar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1979, he has been a radio reporter, news presenter, producer, TV host, foreign correspondent, debater and, in recent years, a news ombudsmen for the daily Sabah. His opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language daily Today's Zaman

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