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Why EU is warning against President Erdoğan's response to coup attempt

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Petros Giannakouris/AP

(Read caption) People are reflected in mirrors next to a Turkish flag hung in the Grand bazaar in Istanbul on Monday. Officials from the European Union are expressing concerns about the Turkish government's response to an attempt coup over the weekend, raising issues that have long impacted negotiations in Turkey's efforts to join the bloc.

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In the wake of mass arrests by Turkish authorities following a failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government, officials in Europe are increasingly voicing concerns about Mr. Erdoğan's response.

The government's efforts at reasserting control – including the rapid identification of judges believed to be behind the coup attempt and among the thousands who were arrested over the weekend – was "exactly what we have feared," Johannes Hahn, the European Union's chief for the bloc's enlargement and neighborhood policy told The Wall Street Journal.

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EU officials condemned the coup attempt, but also expressed concerns about whether Erdoğan would quickly punish people identified as responsible. In doing so, they invoked many of the debates related to Turkey's long-running bid to join the EU. While Turkey and the EU have cooperated to negotiate a deal to stem migration to Europe, Erdoğan's growing efforts at consolidating power and crackdowns on dissent have raised alarms.

Mr. Hahn argued the swiftness of the government's crackdown on judges could cast doubt on Erdoğan's motives, even as the Turkish president took to the app FaceTime on Saturday to assert that the defeat of the coup was a "victory of democracy."

"That the lists [of judges] are available already after the event indicates that this was prepared and at a certain moment should be used," Hahn said before a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Heeding the president's call over the weekend, thousands of pro-Erdoğan Turks rushed outside, overwhelmed the military's tanks and began disarming soldiers in a violent clash, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

The coup attempt also reveals divisions in Turkey that have already undermined its efforts to join the EU.

"There is huge division in the Turkish military and in Turkish society, and they don't go away, but they make the person who's in charge more likely to respond erratically to threats," Brian Klaas, an expert on coups at the London School of Economics, told the Monitor.

Turkey first applied to join what was then the European Economic Community in 1987 and gained eligibility to join the EU a decade later.

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But since accession negotiations began in 2005, they have frequently turned contentious, particularly around whether Turkey fulfills many of the bloc's mandates for membership and especially because of human rights concerns. Erdoğan's conservative Justice and Development (AKP) Party, which has Islamist roots, assumed power in 2002.

On Monday afternoon, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the stakes, telling reporters in Berlin that negotiations for Turkey to join the EU would cease if the Turkish government revives the death penalty following the coup attempt.

The EU is "a community of values, therefore the institution of the death penalty can only mean that such a country could not be a member," said spokesman Steffen Seibert, the Associated Press reports.

At the same time, Mr. Seibert said the coup would not impact the deal between the EU and Turkey to stem the arrival of migrants by sea. Germany has been a key negotiator in the deal, which has been opposed by some aid groups, including Doctors Without Borders.

Turkey has also emerged as a key ally for the EU in combating the influence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Reuters reports. But parties across the political spectrum in Europe have sometimes raised concerns about its government.

"Turkey has gone through a far-reaching process of democratization accompanied by major constitutional reforms. Taboo subjects, such as the rights of Kurds, are now being debated," the left-leaning European Green Party wrote in a position paper in 2011. "Nevertheless, Turkey is still far from guaranteeing respect for international human rights standards and thus falls short of fulfilling the conditions for EU accession," it added.

A member from the center-right European People's Party focused on Turkey's position on violence against women. "Despite the line of reforms that Turkey is introducing, the phenomenon of arranged marriages and violence against women are still very problematic issues," said Joanna Skrzydlewska, an EPP lawmaker, in a statement in March 2012. "Turkish authorities should enforce effective legislative tools which would make it possible for women to vindicate their rights."

On Monday, however, Turkish officials pushed back at the criticism of a crackdown following the coup attempt.

A senior Turkish official told the Journal the actions came as the result of an investigation into a movement led by Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric and former Erdoğan ally who now lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.

Erdoğan has blamed the failed coup on the movement led by followers of Gulen, with the official saying the judges were linked to the military faction that staged the coup.

But some ministers continued to express concerns. "We are the ones saying today the rule of law has to be protected in the country," said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini at the meeting in Brussels, the Journal reports. "There are no excuses for any steps that takes the country away from that."