April 17, 2018 / 2:04 PM / 5 months ago

Turkey taking 'huge strides' away from European Union: top EU official

STRASBOURG (Reuters) - Turkey is moving rapidly away from the path of European Union membership, the top EU official in charge of negotiations said on Tuesday, as Brussels delivered its harshest criticism yet of what it sees as Ankara’s shift toward authoritarianism.

While couched in diplomatic language, the European Commission’s annual report on Turkey’s progress toward membership blamed Ankara for a broad, collective and disproportionate crackdown after a failed 2016 coup attempt.

It warned that years of progress toward European Union standards in human rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law were being reversed and that Turkey had seen a weakening of local democracy as presidential powers increased.

Turkey “continues to take huge strides away from the EU, in particular in the areas of rule of law and fundamental rights,” European Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who oversees EU membership bids, told a news conference after publishing the report.

“The Commission has repeatedly called on Turkey to reverse this negative trend as a matter of priority and makes very clear the recommendations on this in today’s report,” he said.

In response, Turkey said it was not being treated fairly or objectively by the EU, and added that despite the report its goal was still to join the bloc.

“Turkey isn’t the one moving away from the European Union. The side that is not objective and is, unfortunately, biased and unfair, is the EU,” Turkish government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said, adding that positive elements in the report did not mask the bloc’s unfairness toward Turkey.

“Despite this, we have not abandoned our European Union goal, and we have no intention to do so going forward,” he said after a cabinet meeting.

Ankara regularly rejects EU criticism of its human rights record and accuses Brussels of applying “double standards” in its approach to Turkey, a large, mainly Muslim nation of 80 million people located in a geopolitically volatile region.

The report marks a new low point in EU-Turkey relations after the promise of Turkish political and economic reforms a decade ago. It bodes poorly for Ankara’s hopes of negotiating an EU free-trade deal and visa-free travel for Turks to the bloc.

Turkey began talks to join the EU in 2005, 18 years after applying. While a series of factors slowed negotiations, notably the Cyprus issue and resistance in Germany and France to Turkish membership, since 2016 membership talks have all but collapsed.

STATE OF EMERGENCY

The Commission report, part of an EU process to measure candidates’ steps toward EU standards and integration, also called for Turkey to lift a state of emergency that allows President Tayyip Erdogan and the government to bypass parliament in passing new laws and to suspend rights and freedoms.

The report said the state of emergency - imposed after the failed coup - had “curtailed certain civil and political rights, including freedom of expression”, and added that emergency decrees had not been open to judicial or parliamentary review.

However, Turkey’s National Security Council on Tuesday advised an extension of the state of emergency for the seventh time since the attempted coup in July 2016. Parliament is likely to approve the extension.

The European Commission report said that since the introduction of the state of emergency, more than 150,000 people had been taken into custody, 78,000 arrested and more than 110,000 civil servants dismissed. Around 40,000 have been reinstated, Turkish authorities say.

Ankara says its security measures are necessary given the severity of the threats faced by Turkey, a NATO member, which shares a land border with Iraq and Syria.

Despite the tensions and Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric toward members of the EU, he has said he remains committed to joining the bloc. Germany’s EU minister defended the accession process on Tuesday, though Austria said it should be officially annulled.

“I would suggest we do not slam the door shut. That would be a wrong signal towards those in Turkey who still long for European values,” Germany’s Michael Roth told reporters at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg.

Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels, Gabriela Baczynska in Luxembourg, Tulay Karadeniz and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Gareth Jones/Mark Heinrich

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