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12/06/2013EU urges Turkey to take 'democratic' approach to protests

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton urged Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to abide by European democratic standards Wednesday as Germany and Italy warned a violent crackdown on protesters could harm Turkey's bid for membership of the bloc.

Delivering her first public statement on Turkey's troubles in a speech to the European Parliament, Ashton said Erdogan's response with protesters must be "engagement not antagonism."

"This is an important moment for Turkey. A chance for it to renew its commitment to European values," she said. "I am convinced it can meet this challenge."

Recalling that EU ministers are to decide this month whether to open a new chapter for the first time in several years in Ankara's stalled bid for membership, Ashton said: "Turkey as a candidate country needs to aspire to the highest possible democratic practices".

Of the 35 so-called policy chapters EU candidates must negotiate, Turkey has opened talks on only 13.

The European Union must not pull back from Turkey despite concerns over Erdogan's handling of the protests, Ashton said.

"This is not the moment to disengage from Turkey but to engage more closely. And for Turkey to engage more closely with the EU too."

Turkey's efforts to join the EU formally started in 2005 but are snagged due to human rights concerns and the row over EU-member Cyprus, whose northern third is occupied by Turkey.

In Germany, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said images of demonstrators being chased down by riot police in Istanbul were "disturbing" and sent the "wrong message" to EU nations.

"The Turkish government is sending the wrong message to the country and to Europe with its response to date to the protests," he said, adding that Ankara must do "all in its power" to protect democratic rights.

"We expect Prime Minister Erdogan to de-escalate the situation in the spirit of European values and initiate constructive communication and peaceful dialogue."

A German foreign ministry source meanwhile said it was unlikely Turkey's EU talks could enter the next stage soon.

"That will probably not be possible," the source said, adding that there were still "considerable doubts".

Ashton had harsh words for the use by Turkish police over the past two weeks of tear gas, water cannon, pepper spray and plastic bullets against protesters who have been "overwhelmingly peaceful."

"Excessive use of force by members of the police against peaceful demonstrators must be swiftly and thoroughly investigated and those responsible held accountable", she said.

Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino also slammed police action during protests she described as Turkey's "first serious test" in its bid to join the EU. Italy, like Britain, is more favourable towards Turkish membership.

"The Turkish government is in the process of sitting a maturity test in the squares and the streets. It is probably the first serious test for the endurance of democracy in Turkey and its accession to Europe," she told parliament.

"Italy wants a fully democratic Turkey in the heart of Europe," Bonino added.

"Turkey must decide whether it wants to become a mature democracy. The disproportionate use of force and the arrest of 20 lawyers are unacceptable."

Nationwide unrest first erupted after police cracked down on May 31 on a campaign to save an Istanbul park from redevelopment, spiralling into mass displays of anger against Erdogan.

Four people, including a policeman, have died in the unrest and nearly 5,000 demonstrators have been injured.

© 2013 AFP

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