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EU says Turkey still ‘backsliding’ on reforms, gloomy on membership chances

turkish president erdogan attends a news conference in istanbul
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan

The European Union’s executive said on Tuesday that Turkey‘s bid to join the bloc had “come to a standstill” amid serious democratic shortfalls, in its most critical annual report since Ankara began membership talks 16 years ago.

The European Commission said President Tayyip Erdogan’s government had overseen a continued erosion of democracy and the rule of law and had ignored the EU’s recommendations last year.

The report also suggested for the first time that Ankara was no longer serious about delivering on EU-backed reforms, even though Erdogan recommited in April to the goal of full EU membership as both sides tried to improve relations.

“The EU’s serious concerns on the continued deterioration of democracy, the rule of law, fundamental rights and the independence of the judiciary have not been addressed. There was further backsliding in many areas,” the Commission said.

“Under the current circumstances, Turkey‘s accession negotiations have effectively come to a standstill,” it said.

Turkey‘s foreign ministry said the report showed a “double-standard approach” by the EU and rejected the “unfair criticisms and baseless claims”. It accused the bloc of failing to keep its promises to Turkey and of not fulfilling its responsibilities.

Turkey maintains in the strongest terms its strategic choice of full EU membership,” the ministry said in a statement.

“It would be in everyone’s interest if the EU, taking into account our common general interests, sees Turkey as a candidate country that is negotiating, not as a partner with whom to have daily give-take relations.”

A NATO ally, Turkey has been negotiating its EU membership since 2005 after economic and political reforms that made it an important emerging market economy and trade partner.

But since Erdogan’s hardline response to an attempted coup in July 2016, the paths of EU and Turkey have diverged sharply, despite better diplomatic relations since the start of 2021.

A purge of opponents launched in mid-2016 continues, the report said, noting “broad-scale restrictions imposed on the activities of journalists, writers, lawyers, academics, human rights defenders and critical voices”.

Ankara says its security measures are necessary, given the severity of the threats facing Turkey, which shares land borders with Iraq and Syria.

Erdogan’s increase of presidential powers from 2017, which the EU says lack sufficient democratic checks, and his more forceful foreign policy, have also badly strained relations.

In its 2021 report, the Commission questioned Turkey‘s “ability to assume the obligations of membership” and said Ankara pursued reforms in areas from the economy to rule of law “on a rather ad hoc basis”.

It is for the EU’s 27 member states, not the Commission, to decide whether Turkey‘s EU membership bid should be formally annulled. Many believe they should nudge Turkey into a different, looser relationship based around deeper trade ties.

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