Turkey's bid to join the European Union might be the latest casualty of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's crackdown on protesters. As the government rounded up at least 20 people in the capital, Ankara, on Tuesday — accusing them of orchestrating attacks on police — the European Union decided to delay talks that had been scheduled for Wednesday on whether to let Turkey join the E.U., although it committed to returning to the table later this year.
Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands have harshly criticized Erdogan's handling of the protests, which started as a handful of environmentalists trying to protect trees in an Istanbul park and grew into massive, nationwide manifestations of anger over Ergodan's heavy-handed style and increasingly pro-Islamist policies. Turkey's membership bid has been stalled for three years, and an E.U. report last year outlined numerous concerns about Turkey's record on democracy and human rights.
Nevertheless, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle suggests that the talks, which began in 2005, won't collapse over the recent tensions. Westerwelle says he had a "really good, constructive" discussion with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, Monday night, and that Davutoglu expressed confidence that there is "no obstacle" to returning to the table eventually.
Despite the diplomatic niceties, the damage that has been done to Turkey's chances is clear. Barcin Yinanc at Turkey's Hurriyet Daily notes that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has never liked Erdogan, and, last week, she said that she's appalled at his ironfisted handling of protesters demanding their democratic rights. To complicate matters, says Yinanc, any fresh opposition to Turkey's membership bid will undoubtedly provoke a "disproportionate reaction" from Erdogan and his supporters — Turkish E.U. Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis has already threatened repercussions — so the negotiations could unravel quickly.
The E.U. is now facing a dilemma; giving a green light to open [talks] would look like rewarding the behavior of the Erdogan-Bagis duo, whose statements are regarded as unacceptable by European circles. But refusing to open talks... could lead to a break up in relations, and would mean punishing Turkey's democrats and freedom seekers who, in the eyes of the Europeans, are also made up of those who took to the streets. [Hurriyet Daily]
Erdogan's behavior since the protests erupted has certainly provided a valid excuse to those in Germany and elsewhere in Europe who never believed it was a good idea to attempt to integrate Muslim-dominated Turkey into the 27-member bloc. The New York Times notes in an editorial that Erdogan's crackdown — in which police have dispersed peaceful protesters with water cannons and tear gas — has in fact broken some of the 35 criteria for E.U. membership, such as respect for civil rights and freedom of the press. But this is dangerous territory, the Times says, because if the talks are allowed to collapse, everybody loses.
Erdogan deserves the strongest possible criticism, but membership in the European Union is a strategic imperative that, like NATO membership, is intended to bind Turkey to the West. Endeavoring to meet the bloc's criteria has already encouraged Turkey to make important political and economic reforms. Given the recent turmoil, Mr. Erdogan will have to show that he is willing to accept dissent in a democracy and capable of making further reforms. It would be a mistake, however, to fuel the estrangement between Europe and Turkey by shutting down the membership negotiations completely. [New York Times]