News / Europe

EU Delays Turkey Membership Talks Over Protest Crackdown

Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in Istanbul, Turkey, June 23, 2013.
Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in Istanbul, Turkey, June 23, 2013.
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Dorian Jones
— The European Union on Tuesday rebuked Turkey for its crackdown on anti-government protesters by postponing a new round of membership talks for at least four months. It said, however, that said Turkey's path to the EU remains open.

The European Union decision is being treated as a diplomatic victory by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who claimed the four-month postponement was only a technicality and that Brussels had committed itself to opening talks on a new policy "chapter" in Turkey's accession talks.

Until this week, the EU had opened talks on 13 policy chapters with Turkey, but had completed negotiations on just one. Negotiations on 35 policy chapters must be completed for a country to enter the EU.

Davutoglu said the EU had agreed to open Chapter 22, on regional policy - the first such advance in three years.

The delay in talks addresses the concerns of member states, especially Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, about the recent crackdown on protesters by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government. The talks had been scheduled to start on Wednesday.

Last week, Ankara threatened to sever all relations with the EU except for economic ties if the chapter was not opened. According to recent opinion polls, a majority of Turks are against EU membership, and Ankara has been aggressively pursuing political and economic relations outside the EU.

But analyst Atilla Yesilada said the ruling AK Party's anti-Brussels rhetoric was just posturing.

"AKP pretends it does not care, but it is simply not true. The allure of Turkey in the Middle East or Muslim world - or to the investment community, for that matter - is that it's a bridge between Western culture and Eastern cultures of the rest of the world. It's the modern Western-looking face of Turkey that makes us so appealing to the Arab world, to the Muslim world, as a role model. Losing that anchor would of been symbolically a massive blow to AKP," said Yesilada.

Ankara has become increasingly isolated over growing criticism of the crackdown on anti-government protests. Semih Idiz, diplomatic correspondent for the newspaper Taraf, said even before the civil unrest, criticism of Ankara's foreign policy already was growing. He pointed to the government's pro-Syrian opposition stance.

"This is what has been characterized and held against the government, which set out to have zero problems with neighbors, and now it seems it has no relationship with the world, let alone with the neighbors. There is something wrong with the way foreign policy is being administered," said Idiz.

In Istanbul, tensions are growing over foreign policy, as well as other issues, including press censorship and laws restricting alcohol use.

On Tuesday, ahead of the EU announcement, police conducted dawn raids on the homes of protesters, arresting at least 20 people.

Diplomatic correspondent Idiz said that with a series of elections taking place in the next two years, Erdogan's behavior will be increasingly hard to predict.

"The prime minister seemed to have started elections rather early, and he has upped the ante at a very early stage. And this is no doubt worrying for many, many planners in Turkey. The problem of this government and its ministers is that they're caught [between] the need to engage in popularism [populism] vis-a-vis their own supporters and followers, and the need to be realistic in terms of Turkey's needs and the situation in the world, so it seems to be going between those two poles," said Idiz.

Already, in a series of mass election rallies, the prime minister has been playing the nationalist card, claiming the unrest is part of an international conspiracy. But some analysts say it may be too late. Erdogan is no longer seen at home as someone who can handle a crisis.

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