Erdogan in Brussels for EU membership talks
Turkey's embattled Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan began his first visit to Brussels in five years Tuesday aiming to reboot his country's stuttering bid to embrace the European Union.
Erdogan's long-awaited high-profile visit to EU headquarters comes as Turkey faces its worst crisis in years amid a graft scandal and subsequent government purge of police and the judiciary, seen by critics as an authoritarian bid to stifle the probe.
Yet on flying in from Ankara late Monday, Turkey's leader of 11 years was greeted by up to 3,000 supporters waving Turkish flags and shouting their backing for his economic and political reforms.
EU officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the talks would touch on Syria, EU relations and a controversial plan to reform Turkey's top judiciary body, but that they had no precise expectations.
"We are waiting to see what he says," said one official.
Before heading for the Belgian capital, Erdogan sought to downplay the risk of a crisis with the European Union after officials voiced strong concern about the current state of democracy in Turkey and the independence of its institutions.
Erdogan had insisted 2014 would be a "turning point" in Turkey's relations with the EU, after the resumption of membership talks late last year following a three-year freeze.
But he told reporters before leaving that the government would not back down on plans to reform the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), and that it would move ahead with a "brave" reform agenda this year.
In Ankara, new EU Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Muslim-majority Turkey, which has sought for decades to join the European club, would be pushing in Brussels for a timeline for negotiations to ensure that the process is not "open-ended."
"We hope, we wish and we believe that the process concerning the HSYK will not provoke a serious crisis with the EU," Cavusoglu said, although he conceded that there were "some difficulties" in aspects of the membership talks.
'Opportunity to explain reforms'
The sons of three cabinet ministers were detained in a series of police raids in December, along with several business leaders, on an array of allegations including bribery in construction projects, gold smuggling and illicit dealings with Iran.
The Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has accused supporters of an erstwhile ally, exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, of acting as a "state within a state" and instigating the probe as a "coup plot" ahead of key elections this year.
"Our visit to Brussels will provide us with the opportunity to explain to our counterparts what's happening in Turkey in the most accurate and most impartial way," Erdogan said. "God willing, the game of this treacherous network will be destroyed."
The political ructions, which come on the heels of massive anti-government protests in June, have sent Turkish financial markets into freefall and cast doubt on economic forecasts for growth and inflation.
President Abdullah Gul stepped in to resolve the deadlock by pushing for any reforms to the HSYK to be enshrined in constitutional amendments that would require cross-party support.
The European Commission, which has demanded it be consulted on the judicial reforms, said Turkey had sent through a copy of the legislation on Friday.
"This is a very positive gesture," said a commission source, while refraining from commenting directly on the contents.
Turkey has also come under fire for a series of recent measures that rights groups say reflect an increasingly authoritarian tone from Erdogan and pose a threat to freedom and human rights in the traditionally secular society.
They include a controversial bill that makes it a crime for doctors to provide emergency first aid without government authorisation and draft legislation to curb the Internet.
Turkey first sought to join Europe in 1959 but formal membership talks only began in 2005 before hitting several stumbling blocks, including a territorial dispute with member state Cyprus and opposition from heavyweights France and Germany.