Turkey protests: Erdogan rejects EU criticism

Turkish policeman spraying tear gas against a woman in Istanbul, 28 May 2013 Turkish officials admit the police response to the initial protest was excessive

Turkey must investigate the excessive use of force by police against anti-government protesters, a senior EU official has said in Istanbul.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele was speaking ahead of talks on Turkey's ambition to join the EU.

In response, Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan said similar protests in Europe would be dealt with more harshly.

Turkey has seen a week of civil unrest sparked by a police crackdown on a local protest over an Istanbul park.

Fresh clashes between protesters and police broke out in the Istanbul suburb of Gazi on Friday evening, Reuters reported.

Demonstrators hurled stones at police who responded with smoke grenades.

Hundreds of anti-government protesters are still camped in Istanbul's Taksim Square and correspondents say further demonstrations are expected over the weekend.

Mr Fuele and Mr Erdogan were both speaking at a conference in Istanbul on Turkey's relations with the EU.

The EU enlargement commissioner said the EU had no intention of giving up on Turkey's accession, but Turkey had to maintain values of freedom and fundamental rights.

Analysis

Turkey's long march towards the EU has slowed in recent years to a reluctant crawl. Formal talks on membership began in 2005, but there's been a distinct lack of enthusiasm on both sides.

It has been a virtual stalemate since 2010 when France and Cyprus vetoed the opening of negotiations on 11 of the 35 policy areas, or chapters, which countries have to complete to be eligible for membership.

As a result, support for EU membership in Turkey itself has plummeted. But there have been signs recently that things are changing. Both Germany and France have suggested that they want to get things moving again - and it's expected that talks on one of the blocked chapters, regional aid, will begin later this month.

It's only a small step forward, and there is a very long way to go. German Chancellor Angela Merkel admits that she still has doubts about Turkish membership, but she wants the process to continue.

The fact that Turkey's economy has continued to boom, while the eurozone has been mired in crisis, may have contributed to the change of heart.

The other member of the EU's big three, the UK, has always been a leading supporter of Turkey's application.

He urged a "swift and transparent" investigation and those responsible should be held to account.

"Peaceful demonstrations constitute a legitimate way for groups to express their views in a democratic society," he said.

"Excessive use of force by police against these demonstrations has no place in such a democracy".

Defiant

In response, Mr Erdogan accused the EU of double standards, saying police in Europe and the US used the similar methods.

"Similar protests have taken place in Britain, France, Germany and bigger ones in Greece," he said.

His government was open to "democratic demands", he added, but would not accept "terrorism, violence and vandalism".

The Turkish leader also complained about the slow pace of the EU accession process, saying Turkey faced "unjust obstructions".

Human rights concerns have always been an important obstacle to Turkey's membership bid, along with the division of Cyprus and other issues.

The BBC's Mark Lowen in Istanbul says the pull of the EU has waned considerably in Turkey in recent years.

When accession talks began in 2005, over 70% of Turks were in favour of joining; now, some polls put support at just 30%.

Turkish art group performs in support of protesters at Taksim Square in Istanbul (5 June 2013)

Many Turks see a bloc unwilling to welcome a large Muslim-majority nation to the east, especially with the opposition of founding EU members such as France, our correspondent says.

The Turkish government has acknowledged that police used excessive force against the original protest over the planned redevelopment of Gezi Park in Istanbul, near Taksim Square.

But they say the wider protest movement that ensued in cities across the country has been hijacked by extremists.

On Thursday night Mr Erdogan was welcomed back to Turkey by thousands of cheering supporters who waited at the airport to greet him.

It was the first major show of support for Mr Erdogan following a week of protests in which his opponents have called for him to resign.

How the crisis spiralled - in 90 seconds

Four people, including a police officer, are reported to have died since the protests began, with thousands more hurt and hundreds arrested.

The government says more than 500 police officers are among the injured.

The protesters accuse Mr Erdogan's government of becoming increasingly authoritarian and trying to impose conservative Islamic values on a secular state.

His Justice and Development Party (AKP) has governed Turkey since 2002, winning successive election victories.

Map of protest locations in Turkey and Istanbul

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