The EU accused Turkey on Tuesday (10 November) of backsliding on the rule of law, rights and the media, calling on the new government to take urgent action in a sensitive report that Brussels held back until after elections.
The scathing report on Ankara’s EU candidacy, originally due for release before the vote that returned President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s party to power, praised Turkey for housing Syrian refugees and for cooperating on the migration crisis.
But it was severely critical of the domestic situation in Muslim majority Turkey, saying that under Erdo?an there had been “serious backsliding” on freedom of expression and that the judiciary had been undermined.
“The report emphasises an overall negative trend in the respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights,” said a summary of the report’s key findings by the European Commission, the EU’s powerful executive arm.
Turkey’s commitment to joining the 28-nation bloc was “offset” by domestic actions that “ran against European standards”, it added.
“The new government formed after the repeat election on 1 November will need to address these urgent priorities,” the summary said. The report highlighted criminal cases against journalists and writers, intimidation of media outlets and changes to Internet law.
“After several years of progress on freedom of expression, serious backsliding was seen over the past two years,” it said.
It added that the “independence of the judiciary and the principle of separation of powers have been undermined since 2014 and judges and prosecutors have been under strong political pressure.”
‘Severe deterioration’ in security
Turkey had meanwhile seen a “severe deterioration of its security situation”, including a huge suicide bombing on a peace rally just before the election, and the collapse of a ceasefire with Kurdish militants.
The harsh report had been expected to be released in October but was held back until after the elections, in which Erdo?an’s AKP party stormed back to a majority.
Ankara later put out a statement rejecting the report as “unfair.”
Some of the observations in the report are “unfair, and even partly disproportionate and ignore the freedom-security balance required in a democratic country governed by the rule of law,” the ministry responsible for EU affairs said.
The report’s publication comes just over a month after the EU announced a a refugee cooperation deal with Turkey, the main launching point for migrants coming to Europe, including a possible €3 billion in aid.
The deal included pushing forward Turkey’s long-stalled accession process and speeding up visa liberalisation for Turks travelling to the EU.
But Erdo?an and other officials have since dampened expectations, in a further sign of the troubled relationship between Ankara and Brussels.
Erdo?an, who became prime minister in 2003 and then Turkey’s first directly-elected president in 2014, was initially hailed in the West for transforming Turkey into a model of Muslim democracy and turning around its basket-case economy.
But a brutal police crackdown on nationwide protests in 2013, a massive purge of the judiciary following the corruption probe and constant concerns about human rights have cooled relations with both Washington and Brussels.
Turkey applied for EU membership in 1987 and accession talks began in 2005, but Ankara has since completed just one of the 33 “chapters” needed to join the bloc.
EPP rapporteur on Turkey, Dr Renate Sommer MEP (EPP/CDU):
"For years the so called "Progress Reports" have been de facto "Regress Reports". Given the desolate situation in Turkey the Commission finally calls it an annual report about the capability for accession. Positive developments are hardly visible - on the contrary: For the first time the report openly criticises serious regression in the fields of human rights and rule of law. Fundamental rights, like the freedom of expression, have been severely restricted. Numerous criminal proceedings against journalists, writers and social media users as well as changes to the internet law, which are not in line with European standards, have further strengthened the power of the government, which can now block content at its own discretion and without court order. This means that fundamental European values are being ignored.
The report is a shocking testimonial for Turkey. The reforms have come to a halt and Turkey has been moving away from the Copenhagen Criteria for many years. The report also sharply criticizes the enactment of new laws. The new security law massively extends the rights of the police for arrests, search warrants and the use of weapons thus conflicting with European standards. Furthermore, the Commission does not only criticise deficits in the freedom of speech, but also in the freedom of assembly and the judicial system. The fight of the Turkish government against 'alleged' parallel structures' within state institutions led to illegal infringements in the legal system. Judges and lawyers were arrested and prosecutors were deprived of their mandate in several cases. The fight against corruption has not only stopped, but policy makers even try to exert influence on ongoing investigations.
Despite these serious shortcomings the recommendation of the European Commission to open new negotiation chapters is therefore not understandable. Erdogan would 'sell' this as a success of his politics. In the current refugee crisis, he is already acting as a 'saviour' of humanity und is using the crisis to exert pressure vis-a-vis the European Union. However, there may be no discount on EU accession. Our fundamental European values are not negotiable!"
Member of the European Parliament Marietje Schaake (ALDE/D66):
"It is clear that the rule of law and fundamental freedoms in Turkey are under more pressure yet again. It is incomprehensible that the European Commission delayed publishing these important findings until after the elections. For the so-called "deal" that Vice President Timmermans closed on the refugee crisis, principles apparently had to give way."