Turkey struggles to downplay risk of rupture in ties with EU

Increasingly authoritarian

Turkey sought Monday to downplay the risk of a rupture in ties with the European Union as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan heads to Brussels facing the worst crisis of his 11-year rule.
European officials have voiced deep concern about the state of democracy in Turkey and the independence of its institutions after the government moved to tighten its control on the judiciary in the wake of a vast corruption probe.
EU Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu insisted that Muslim-majority Turkey, which has sought for decades to join the European club, wants to be a full and equal EU member.
"We hope, we wish and we believe that the process concerning the HSYK will not provoke a serious crisis with the EU," Cavusoglu said in an interview with the Milliyet newspaper, referring to the top judicial body the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors.
"(Turkey) has so far fulfilled its obligations in a determined fashion and will continue to do so," he also told reporters, conceding however that there were "some difficulties" in aspects of the membership talks.
Erdogan's trip to Brussels -- his first in five years -- was intended to highlight a new era in EU-Turkey ties after the resumption of accession talks last year following a three-year-freeze.
But it has been overshadowed by the graft scandal rocking Erdogan and his government's subsequent mass purge of police and the judiciary, which critics see as a bid to stifle the investigation.
The sons of three government ministers were detained in a series of police raids in December, along with business leaders including the head of a state-owned bank, on an array of allegations including bribery in construction projects, gold smuggling and illicit dealings with Iran.
The Islamic-rooted government has accused supporters of an erstwhile ally, exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, of acting as a "state within a state" and instigating the probe as a "coup plot" ahead of a key round of elections this year.
The political ructions, which come on the heels of massive anti-government protests in June -- have also sent Turkish financial markets into freefall and cast doubt on economic forecasts for growth and inflation.
The lira was down at 2.2372 to the dollar and 3.0328 to the euro in midday trade, as markets awaited news from the central bank's monetary policy meeting on Tuesday.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had said Sunday that all issues were on the table in the EU talks, but defended the government's response to the corruption scandal.
"If there is anything that stands contradictory to EU standards, we will listen to this," said Davutoglu, who will accompany Erdogan on the two-day visit.
Cavusoglu also insisted that the judicial reforms, which are set to be debated by the full parliament on Tuesday, were in line with EU standards.
"We understand that this initiative has triggered some discussion but we are going to explain the merits of this reform," he told Milliyet.
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.
A controversial bill that makes it a crime for doctors to provide emergency first aid without government authorisation came into force on Saturday, while parliament is also debating a bill aimed at curbing the Internet.
While Turkey first sought to join Europe in 1959, 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.
"The atmosphere is not good, the situation is worrying," an EU official said in Brussels.