What does Erdoğan’s ‘reassurance’ to the EU mean?

What does Erdoğan’s ‘reassurance’ to the EU mean?

The first thing to be said about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s talks in Brussels on Tuesday is that it was good to see no tension emerge from the meetings. Given Erdoğan’s extreme touchiness since the Gezi Park protests toward any criticism from the West, there was the possibility that he would react angrily to any criticisms coming from the EU side.

As matter stand, European Council President Herman van Rompuy, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, and the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, made it amply clear they had expressed their concerns over the legal and administrative steps the government has been taking since the massive corruption scandal hit the headlines in Turkey on Dec. 17, 2013.

During their joint press conference with Erdoğan, van Rompuy indicated that he had stressed the need for Turkey to stick to the rule of law and separation of powers, while Barroso reiterated “the European concerns” about the latest events in Turkey. He added that Erdoğan had given “reassurances of his intention to fully respect the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and, generally speaking, the separation of powers.”

This is the most important statement to come out of Erdoğan’s talks in Brussels. Many wonder now what this will mean in terms of the ongoing effort by the government to change the law governing the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK).

Erdoğan clearly wants to bring this institution under government control. If he did indeed give the reassurances that Barroso is talking about, then his party should immediately withdraw the bill it has submitted to Parliament on this topic.

Just about every impartial legal expert, after all, is saying that it violates the principle of the separation of powers in its present form. Meanwhile, President Abdullah Gül is saying that whatever steps the government takes in this regard has to comply with the rules of the Venice Commission, which is attached to the Council of Europe that Turkey is a member of.

The Venice Commission lays down guidelines for constitutional and legal reforms in order to ensure these not only remain within democratic boundaries, but also advance and enhance democracy in member states.

There is an essential contradiction here for the government, of course. On the one hand, it wants to control the judiciary in order to prevent the kinds of legal investigations over corruption, or other issues, that have started to embarrass it, and to undermine its credibility. On the other hand it says it is committed to advancing democracy.

But you cannot have it both ways, not even in Turkey, where logic can be bent in such a manner that politicians can claim to be advancing democracy at the very moment that they are undermining it. This is why we have to see what the reassurance Erdoğan is said to have given the EU means.

If this “reassurance” turns out to be hollow in the end, it is clear that the president of the EU Commission will only feel let down, but also that he has been taken for a ride. Needless to say, this will not contribute much to Erdoğan’s reputation in Europe, or to advancing Turkish-EU ties.

If, however, Erdoğan is seen to be changing track in favor of democracy in terms of what his government has been doing of late, this will show that the EU continues to have positive influence over Ankara, which will be good since this influence represents a push for EU standards of democracy in Turkey.

Time will tell if the assurance Erdoğan is said to have given the EU actually means anything. The hope is that it does. But this is Turkey, where the most basic of concepts to do with democracy or the rule of law can be twisted into weird shapes. So no one should wait with bated breath.