Turkey's crisis is to be exported to the EU, risking accession process

In his contentious battle against the judiciary, with the prime focus on the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan offered two choices.

Addressing the opposition parties, he told them that he would be ready to cooperate on a constitutional amendment to restructure the HSYK with more political representation, copying the — highly problematic — model of the media regulatory body, the Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTUK).

Or he would proceed with the moves to pass a law to reach the same goal, he said.

It seems now that this was an offer the opposition could refuse.

The right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), displaying a very consistent line on its own for a long time, did not blink.

Its lead figures rejected the “carrot,” countering that the independence of the judiciary is crucial, and graft probes would be carried out properly.

There was for some time a question mark over what the Kemalist main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), would say. But on Wednesday, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, meeting a group of pundits, made it clear: No deal.

“A jurist cannot carry the badge of a political party,” he told reporters, raising the stakes. “We want the bill to be withdrawn by the ruling party. Second, we want the corruption investigations to carry on without an intervention by the ruling party.”

The position of the opposition is subtly endorsed also by President Abdullah Gül.

“At a time when heated debates are ongoing over the judiciary, I believe the issue should be resolved through a constitutional amendment and without harming Turkey,” he said, adding, “I would also expect that constitutional amendments be conducted according to the EU norms and to those adopted in mature democracies.”

This spontaneous, but principled, constellation gives no leeway to Erdoğan to share his growing political burden with adversaries. It is apparent that both the CHP and MHP now feel that they have the momentum to tighten the screws even harder, pushing him either to step back from his defensive hostility to the judiciary, or go on with higher risks of confrontation, polarization and political loss.

The tiny light for Erdoğan is to seek enough seats for the amendment with the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), but if successful, it would only suffice to take an amendment to a referendum. Given the 58-percent backing in 2010 for the current state of the HSYK, this option would probably lead to a disastrous defeat for the prime minister. Besides, to only cooperate with a pro-Kurdish party would have unforeseen political repercussions at the electorate level.

The ongoing problem with Erdoğan, who for some time has been unquestioned within the Justice and Development Party (AKP), is that he obstinately pursues a strategy of multiple harm all around — by anger, and by shifting tactics constantly. The graft probe raised his defensiveness to a new height.

A clear sign of this was noticed in his remarkable speech at the annual gathering of Turkey’s ambassadors on Wednesday. “The process that began on Dec. 17 is a coup attempt disguised as an anti-corruption operation,” he told them. “We expect you to tell the truth to your interlocutors [abroad] and to exert more efforts to foil this treacherous campaign that targets the whole of Turkey. I especially ask you to underline that this is not an anti-corruption operation but a coup attempt disguised as such.”

This attitude makes his visit next week to Brussels a very delicate one.

The new EU minister, Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, was told in clear terms by the EU officials that the HSYK moves cause grave concern, both in Brussels and at the Council of Europe.

Given his explosive record, diplomats on all sides fear any bitter result in Erdoğan’s meetings, to say the least, may further chill Turkish-EU relations.

The burden on the EU Commission, therefore, is not less than the one that is on Erdoğan, for different reasons. The opening of Chapter 22 was hard work in the wake of Gezi protests, and the dilemma of the EU is obvious: To push the chill or, as the fragile judiciary is under severe pressure and close to paralysis, to open the related Chapter 23.