BERLIN (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan urged Angela Merkel to throw Germany’s full weight behind his country’s bid to join the European Union but there was no sign the chancellor had been swayed from her skeptical stance on Turkish membership.
In a visit to Berlin overshadowed by EU concerns about his crackdown on the judiciary and police whom he accuses of forming part of a “parallel state”, Erdogan complained that German support was “not currently adequate”.
“We want to see more. I would like to remind you that the population of Turks in Germany alone is greater than the population of many European countries,” he told the German Council on Foreign Relations before meeting Merkel.
Erdogan has purged thousands of police and sought tighter control of the courts since a corruption inquiry burst into the open in December, a scandal he has cast as an attempted “judicial coup” meant to undermine him ahead of elections.
In combination with his heavy-handed tactics against last year’s protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, Erdogan’s response has reinforced the view in Berlin and Brussels that Turkey’s fragile democracy may not yet be ready for EU membership.
“I personally said that we are in a negotiation process that has certain outcome and no fixed time frame,” Merkel told a news conference after their talks.
“It is no secret and nothing has changed in my view that I am skeptical about full membership for Turkey,” Merkel said, adding that this should not prevent the talks from going ahead.
Erdogan did appear to have won a concession from Merkel on the unblocking of two crucial chapters in accession talks: Chapter 23 that deals with judiciary and fundamental rights and 24 on justice, freedom and security.
“I am in favor of unblocking 23 and 24,” said Merkel.
The European Commissioner in charge of enlargement, Stefan Fuele, has argued that opening up these chapters would be an effective way of tackling Turkey’s poor human rights record.
Ankara began negotiations to join the EU in 2005, 18 years after applying. But a series of political obstacles, notably over the divided island of Cyprus, and resistance to Turkish membership in Germany and France, have slowed progress.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told Erdogan last week that respect for the rule of law and an independency judiciary were pre-conditions for EU membership. Erdogan argues he is only taking action against an attempt to subvert the rule of law.
A draft bill from Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, which is currently on hold in parliament, would give the government greater control over the appointment of judges and prosecutors. The party argues it is needed to curb the influence of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based cleric and his former ally.
Aware of the EU’s concerns, Erdogan - once considered a model of democracy for the Muslim world - said the corruption probe unfairly targeted his followers and was orchestrated by people who “wanted to change Turkey’s direction”.
As well as Berlin, Erdogan has visited Brussels and Paris in recent weeks in a bid to build momentum after the start of a new round of EU membership talks in November, the first in more than three years. Talks had been delayed by EU states over last summer’s crackdown on anti-government demonstrations.
“Many developments like the matters of Syria and Egypt have enabled us all to see that it is the EU which needs Turkey and not Turkey which needs the EU,” said Erdogan, who last week won cautious support for the EU bid from France’s Francois Hollande.
His speech to a diplomatic audience in Berlin elicited only polite applause and a few hundred members of Germany’s Turkish minority of three million people protested at his visit by the Brandenburg Gate. Banners read: “Democracy now, everywhere!”
“He’s trying to turn us into Iran,” said Ajsel Cam, a 45-year-old cook who works at a Berlin hospital. She added that Erdogan’s ally-turned-rival Gulen was “exactly the same”.
“We want true democracy,” said Cam Temuer, a pensioner aged 70. “Everything in Turkey is falling apart.”
Erdogan could expect a warmer welcome later on Tuesday at a political rally at an arena in Kreuzberg, a Berlin district home to many Turkish immigrants.
Campaigning for local elections in March and a presidential election in the summer where Turks living abroad can vote, he boasted of strong economic management in his 11 years in office and said a hike in interest rates by Turkey’s central bank, in response to an emerging markets rout, should only be temporary.
Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley and Daren Butler in Istanbul and Madeline Chambers and Monica Raymunt in Berlin; Writing by Stephen Brown; editing by Ralph Boulton