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Turkey PM tells EU he won't budge on controversial reform

Turkey's embattled leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, refused to give ground on a much-criticised reform of the country's top judicial body as he held talks with European Union leaders Tuesday.

BRUSSELS: Turkey's embattled leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, refused to give ground on a much-criticised reform of the country's top judicial body as he held talks with European Union leaders Tuesday.

Visiting EU headquarters for the first time in five years, Erdogan stood firm on his controversial response to a massive graft scandal engulfing Turkey. EU leaders simply noted their concern and called for respect of the rule of law and the separation of powers.

At the centre of EU concerns is a plan to reform Turkey's top judicial body, the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), the latest chapter in a weeks-long political crisis triggered by a massive corruption investigation that has ensnared key Erdogan allies.

Erdogan's response to the graft probe -- purging police and prosecutors -- has set alarm bells ringing on the state of democracy in Turkey and raised concerns in the EU and elsewhere over his increasingly autocratic actions.

"The judiciary should not go beyond its defined mission and mandate. This is what we're doing. Anything else is misinformation and disinformation," Erdogan said at a news conference.

The powerful Turkish leader of 11 years blames his troubles on a plot by an exiled rival with influence in the police and courts, Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Saying he had discussed "current developments" with Erdogan, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said he had stressed "not to backtrack on achievements and to assure that the judiciary is able to function without discrimination or preference, in a transparent and impartial manner".

Erdogan said through a translator that it was up to the "power of the people" or parliament, where his party has a majority, "to make sure of the impartiality of the judiciary".

In response to the graft scandal, Erdogan's AKP party had initially called for the government to appoint members of the HSYK, but it later revised the proposals, suggesting instead that they be appointed by MPs in accordance with their parties' representation in parliament.

The European Commission, which has demanded to be consulted on the judicial reforms, said Turkey had sent through a copy of the legislation on Friday.

"We should handle this in our bilateral talks through our ministers, not over the media," Erdogan said.

EU has "frank and open exchange"

Asked if he had been convinced by Erdogan's stand, European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said he had had "a very frank and open exchange" about the situation in Turkey.

"I said whatever the problems are, the solutions must be within the limits of European standards," he said.

Pressed repeatedly to state whether Erdogan had undermined Turkey-EU ties, Van Rompuy said what was important was to maintain "constant contact and constant dialogue".

Tuesday's talks also focused on Turkey's role in the Syria crisis, as well as on trade issues and Turkey's slow progress towards EU membership.

Erdogan had insisted 2014 would be a "turning point" in Turkey's relations with the EU, after the resumption of membership talks late last year following a three-year freeze.

But he told reporters before leaving home that the government would not back down on plans to reform the HSYK and that the government would move ahead with a "brave" reform agenda this year.

In Ankara, new EU Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Muslim-majority Turkey, which has sought for decades to join the European club, would be pushing in Brussels for a timeline for negotiations to ensure that the process is not "open-ended".

"We hope, we wish and we believe that the process concerning the HSYK will not provoke a serious crisis with the EU," Cavusoglu said, although he conceded there were "some difficulties" in aspects of the membership talks.

Turkey's political ructions, which come on the heels of massive anti-government protests in June, have sent its financial markets into freefall and cast doubt on economic forecasts for growth and inflation.

Adding to the recent criticism, Human Rights Watch said in a report issued Tuesday that Erdogan's AKP party had demonstrated "growing intolerance of political opposition, public protest and critical media".

Turkey first sought to join Europe in 1959 but formal membership talks only began in 2005. They then hit several stumbling blocks, including a territorial dispute with member state Cyprus and opposition from heavyweights France and Germany.

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