Turkey's EU membership bid remains 'at a standstill'

Human rights concerns and Mediterranean tension blamed for lack of progress

In this photo provided on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020, by the Greek Defense Ministry, worships from Greece, Italy, Cyprus and France, participate in a joint military exercise which was held from 26-28 of August, south of Turkey in eastern Mediterranean sea.  Turkey on Monday, Aug. 31, accused Greece of "piracy" and warned it will stand up to Athens' alleged efforts to militarize islands near its coast.(Greek Defense Ministry via AP)
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Turkey’s application to join the EU remains at a standstill, the bloc says.

A scathing EU assessment said human rights concerns, tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and Turkey’s neutral stance on Ukraine were impeding progress.

It said Turkey was a key partner in areas such as migration and counter-terrorism, but was moving further away from the standards that would be required to join the EU.

Turkey has been an EU candidate country since 1999, but accession negotiations have not advanced for years.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated Turkey’s desire to join the EU at a summit of European leaders last week in Prague, where he said Turkey was facing unfair hurdles to entry.

“Turkey is irreplaceable when it comes to overcoming the challenges the EU is faced with and in defining the international role of the union,” Mr Erdogan said.

But his message failed to sway the opinion of EU enlargement chief Oliver Varhelyi, who said tensions between Turkey and EU members, notably Greece, had risen in the past year.

In an annual update on enlargement, Mr Varhelyi recommended granting candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and hailed signs of progress in Serbia and Kosovo, but was more downbeat on Turkey’s prospects.

Turkey “has not reversed the negative trend of moving away from the EU with continuous backsliding in key areas of fundamental rights, rule of law and independence of the judiciary,” he said.

“In this regard, the accession negotiations remain at a standstill.”

Turkish foreign policy was at odds with EU priorities, Mr Varhelyi said, notably through its strengthening of trade relations with Russia even as the EU hits Moscow with sanctions.

At the same time, the EU praised Turkey’s “constructive role” in brokering an agreement with Russia and Ukraine to resume grain exports affected by the war.

Mr Erdogan has positioned himself as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine and in Prague made a renewed plea for peace talks to end the war.

There was also praise for Turkey’s “remarkable efforts” to host refugees, including 3.6 million Syrians, in a 140-page EU assessment submitted to member states.

But officials said serious deficiencies in Turkey’s democratic institutions left it no closer to EU accession.

Their concerns included corruption, undue pressure on judges and a lack of civilian oversight over the military and intelligence services.

And they said signs of improvement in EU-Turkey relations in 2021 had been replaced by renewed tension in the Mediterranean.

Matters deteriorated in the first half of 2022 due to repeated violations of Greek airspace by Turkish fighter jets and threatening statements from Ankara regarding the sovereignty of Greek islands, the report said.

Another objection was Turkey’s lack of co-operation with an EU mission in the Mediterranean dedicated to enforcing a UN arms embargo on Libya.

“Tensions in the Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean were not conducive to good neighbourly relations and undermined regional stability and security,” the EU report said.

“Turkey needs to commit itself unequivocally to good neighbourly relations, international agreements and to the peaceful settlement of disputes.”

Before joining the EU, applicants must negotiate with the bloc on 35 policy areas in which they are expected to adopt European law.

Turkey has held talks with the EU on 16 of these but only one, science and technology, was provisionally completed before the talks reached an impasse.

Applications from Albania, North Macedonia and others had also stalled before the war in Ukraine revived interest in binding European nations together.

Member states agreed to grant Ukraine and Moldova candidate status in June and are now being encouraged to do the same for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The pan-European forum founded in Prague was designed to bring in countries such as Ukraine before they are ready to join the bloc. But Mr Erdogan said Turkey would never accept it as a substitute for EU membership.

Updated: October 13, 2022, 10:25 AM