The Turkish prime minister’s campaign to purge the top echelons of the police and tame the country’s senior judges ran into its first wall of international criticism on Tuesday when Brussels told him that he had to rewrite a contested bill to follow European standards.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayipp Erdogan is on his first visit to Brussels in five years, weeks after the biggest corruption scandal in years erupted in Turkey. He was told that his bill giving the executive authority over judges and prosecutors ran foul of European constitutional norms on the separation of powers.
The prime minister insisted he was committed to the separation of powers, but argued that judges were not acting independently in Turkey and that his bill would force them to do so.
“The judiciary should not go beyond its defined mission and mandate,” Erdogan said. “When one power starts interfering with another power, this country loses its quality of democracy.”
The problem, he said, would be fixed “legislatively.”
His remedy includes putting the justice minister — a new appointment and close ally — in a position to discipline and remove judges and prosecutors.
Erdogan’s robust defense of his policies follows allegations of corruption on a huge scale at the heart of his government, also implicating the prime minister’s family.
Dismissing the investigation into the sleaze allegations as a foreign plot to topple his government, he has moved to purge senior police officers and exert greater control over the judiciary.
According to the European Commission, about 2,000 senior police officers, including most of those in key intelligence and investigative roles, have been fired or reassigned.
“Whatever the problems are, the solutions should respect the principles of the rule of law and the separation of powers,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said after talks with Erdogan.
Erdogan’s war with Turkey’s judges and police is ascribed to a bitter power struggle with his erstwhile ally, the US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who runs religious schools and cultural bodies in Turkey, and is said to have followers within the state’s security and judicial structures.
“It’s a big setback. There has been damage done to the rule of law in Turkey,” an EU official dealing with Turkey said.
German Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that EU membership talks with Turkey might need to be frozen because of Erdogan’s conduct. The negotiations only resumed in November last year after being suspended for 40 months because of various other disputes.
The judiciary bill is being pushed through parliament in Ankara. The main opposition Republican People’s Party and the Nationalist Movement Party, which both oppose the changes, called for the bill to be put to the parliamentary constitutional commission.
According to Turkish media, this met on Monday with Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, but failed to reach an agreement.