EU sees 'serious deficiencies' in functioning of Turkey's democratic institutions

In a new report on Oct. 19, the European Commission has expressed its concerns over the continued deterioration of human and fundamental rights in Turkey, saying that the country's bid to join the bloc has "come to a standstill." Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell signaled on Oct. 18 that the bloc is preparing to sanction Turkey over its activities in Varosha and in the eastern Mediterranean.

Duvar English - Reuters 

The European Commission on Oct. 19 adopted its 2021 Enlargement Package, providing a detailed assessment of the state of progress made by the Western Balkans and Turkey on their respective paths towards the European Union. 

In its report for Turkey, the European Union's executive said 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 Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government had overseen a continued erosion of democracy and the rule of law and had ignored the EU's recommendations last year.

"There are serious deficiencies in the functioning of Turkey's democratic institutions. Democratic backsliding continued during the reporting period. Structural deficiencies of the presidential system remained in place. Key recommendations of the Council of Europe and its bodies remain to be addressed," the report read. 

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

"Under the current circumstances, Turkey's accession negotiations have effectively come to a standstill," it said.

Highlight the erosion of judicial independence in Turkey, the report said: "Turkey's judicial system is at an early stage of preparation. The serious backsliding observed since 2016 continued. Concerns remained, in particular over the systemic lack of independence of the judiciary and undue pressure on judges and prosecutors."

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 Erdoğan'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.

Erdoğan'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 within the bloc and at NATO.

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.

Sanctions back on the table for Turkey

Meanwhile, following a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Oct. 18, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced that the European External Action Service will draft a list of possible actions in response to Ankara’s partial opening of the fenced-off town of Varosha in northern Cyprus and its actions in the eastern Mediterranean.

In a news conference after the foreign ministers’ meeting, Borrell said that last July the EU had announced that if Turkey continued with moves against Greek Cyprus and Greece, then the Council would ask EU bureaucrats to draft a list of options.

“The options paper will provide an analysis of the situation and provide options for several types of measures that can be taken as a response to Turkey’s actions.

“This is the first step towards decisions being taken in this area,” Borrell was quoted as saying by Greek Cypriot daily Financial Mirror. 

Borrell said EU foreign ministers talked about the "unacceptable harassment of ships" belonging to Greek Cyprus and Greece in the Mediterranean Sea, and all member states expressed their solidarity.

Meanwhile, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay issued a warning for both Greece and Greek Cyprus on Oct. 18. 

“By using a ship of Italian interests with the flag of Malta, Greece and Greek Cypriot management are trying to send a research ship to our continental shelf. I emphasize once again; those who confuse their course in the Mediterranean will receive their answer," Oktay said. 

For decades, Turkey has been at odds with Greece and Greek Cyprus over competing territorial claims in the eastern Mediterranean, air space, energy, the status of some islands in the Aegean, and the breakaway Turkish state on the divided island of Cyprus.

After months of tension last year that sparked fears of direct confrontation between NATO members Turkey and Greece, the two sides agreed in January to resume talks to address their differences after a five-year hiatus.

Cyprus was split in a 1974 Turkish invasion triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup. Since then, Cyprus has been run by a Greek Cypriot administration in the south that Ankara does not recognise, and ties with the Turkish state to the north are now at their lowest point.