Turkey, E.U. on the outs over protests

After years of on-again, off-again efforts to join the European Union, Turkey is again on the outs with Europe, a major casualty of Turkish leaders’ harsh response to protests that have swept their country for more than three weeks.

The next steps in E.U. membership discussions were originally scheduled to begin within days, but Germany blocked them last week over concerns that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had taken an undemocratic turn in his efforts to stamp out the protests. Thousands across Turkey have turned to the streets with complaints that focus on restricted personal liberties under his rule.

Turkey once coveted membership in the European Union in the hopes of economic and political benefits. But after years of caution from Germany, France and others on whether to grant Turkey membership, Erdogan turned his attention to building his country’s influence in the Middle East and among its neighbors.

On Monday, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle signaled a compromise that could salvage membership talks by postponing them until after an October E.U. report on Turkish democracy is released. Foreign ministers from the 27 E.U. nations will make a final decision this week. But after furious exchanges last week, in which the foreign ministries of Germany and Turkey each summoned the other’s ambassador for consultations, relations between the E.U. and the nation that straddles Europe and Asia appear to be at a new low.

“On the one hand, we cannot pretend as if these talks here were happening without any context, as if the past days hadn’t existed,” Westerwelle said in meetings in Luxembourg, the Associated Press reported. “On the other hand, we also have to see that our joint, general, strategic and long-term interests are upheld.”

This month, Erdogan has repeatedly targeted European countries with accusations that they were intervening in his country’s affairs because they could not bear to see a newly strong Turkey. With anger on both sides of the negotiating table, Europe’s hopes for influence in Turkey appear unlikely to be fulfilled anytime soon, analysts say.

Some European leaders are wary of admitting Turkey into the bloc, concerned that the issues involved in integrating the Muslim-majority nation of 74 million people would be insurmountable. The talks, which began in 2005, have always moved slowly. If admitted, Turkey would become the second-largest country in the economic and political bloc.

Germany, the largest country in the E.U., has a large population of Turks, who went there in the 1960s and 1970s for economic reasons. And German leaders have been on the front lines in condemning the police response to the protests in Turkey. Several demonstrators and a police officer have been killed and thousands injured.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has said that she wanted a “privileged partnership” with Turkey that stopped short of full E.U. membership, said Sunday that she had dropped even that idea.

“Turkey doesn’t want it,” she said at a Sunday gathering of her conservative political bloc, which approved a platform for September elections that says the E.U. would be “overburdened” by Turkish membership.

Erdogan has repeatedly criticized Europe in defiant speeches in front of tens of thousands of supporters, accusing foreign agents of sowing discontent just as Turkey had finished paying off a debt to the International Monetary Fund and initiated peace talks with a Kurdish militant group.

Analysts say the Turkish leader’s rhetoric suggests that he thinks he has little to lose by criticizing his northern neighbors.

“The protests showed us again a very authoritarian government which is not really considering the impact of its deeds and actions on the relationship with the European Union,” said Guenter Seufert, a Turkey expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

But, Seufert said, “if we are blocking” Turkish membership talks, “we are losing our own tool” to push for a more democratic Turkey.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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