EXCLUSIVE / The European Union has never sent Turkey the required benchmarks to reform its justice system, making the country's EU accession process impossible to complete, according to a high-level official in Ankara who spoke to EurActiv in an exclusive interview.

Burak Erdenir, deputy undersecretary at the Turkish Ministry for EU Affairs, said Ankara was never given the promised benchmark criteria that are needed to open the two controversial EU accession chapters covering justice, freedom and fundamental rights, also referred to as chapters 23 and 24.

According to the Turkish high official, EU negotiators have perverted Ankara's accession process by refusing to release the criteria, suggesting this was a deliberate move to delay the accession talks.

“You can’t ask us to complete benchmarks which were never given to us and then bash Turkey on lacking political reforms – it simply makes no sense,” Erdenir said.

This is the first time that a Turkish official spoke on the record about the lack of guidelines, or benchmarks, at such a high level. If confirmed, the allegations could raise serious concerns about the arbitrariness of the entire accession process, as the benchmarks were supposed to have been communicated to Ankara after two screening processes in 2006.

Asked by EurActiv to comment, the European Commission acknowledged the problem. Peter Stano, spokesperson for Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle, told EurActiv that the Commission "will continue to do all it can...for Turkey to receive the opening benchmarks."

The Commission, he added "believes it is important that... work resumes on negotiating chapters interrupted over a number of years due to the lack of consensus amongst member states."

Lost benchmarks

Turkey launched its EU accession bid in 2005, four decades after its first application, but the process has come to a standstill due to resistance from France and Cyprus.

“We were supposed to be given the benchmarks to be able to know which direction to follow and which reforms to undertake,” Erdenir explained.

“We were communicated the screening meetings about seven years ago, but everything has stalled since then. Turkey is aware of the fact that the process has slowed down, but this is really different – they simply never sent us the targets, but continued criticising us for not upholding a standard we were never really given”.

In 2012, the EU and Turkey launched the so-called “positive agenda” in an effort to revitalise the accession process. But those efforts came to a standstill during the Cyprus EU presidency between July and December last year.

The revelation that specific targets and benchmarks associated with the opening of chapters 23 and 24 were never delivered to Ankara raises concerns regarding the transparency of the accession process.

The success of EU talks heavily depends on screening reports based on benchmarks, which provide candidate countries with reform guidelines in various areas, ensuring that countries fall in line with EU legislation and the so-called Copenhagen political criteria.

The opening and closing of individual chapters is subject to unanimity among the 27 EU member states, as is the final decision to conclude an Accession Treaty, making the whole process vulnerable to national vetoes and blackmail.  

Benchmarks and progress reports are supposed to give candidate countries a clear idea of which reforms must be completed to further the accession process. For Turkey, the first screening processes took place In October and September 2006 and included the standard practice of screening Turkish law against EU legislation.

The justice benchmarks are significant because of the criticism Turkey has faced surrounding its anti-terror laws, which are seen as impeding press freedom and leading to the incarceration of more than 80 journalists.

Perverting the accession process

The allegations surrounding the benchmarks would suggest that the EU is portraying an incorrect picture of the current accession talks due to internal political issues.

According to Erdenir, “this is not only worrisome in relation to the Turkish accession, but also because it becomes harder to count on the EU as a reliable and legitimate body”.

In early 2012, Turkey and the EU had opened 13 of the 35 negotiating chapters, and had provisionally closed only one.

"No chapters have been opened in the last two and a half years. Almost half of the 35 chapters are blocked on political grounds. EU membership of any candidate country might be a political decision but the accession process is supposed to be a technical process with objective criteria. We just want to pursue our negotiations like any other candidate state," said Erdenir.