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Home News EU wannabe Turkey rapped over rights, media freedoms

EU wannabe Turkey rapped over rights, media freedoms

Published on 15/10/2009

Brussels -- The European Union rapped Turkey over its rights record and voiced serious concern over pressure on the media Wednesday as it issued its annual report on countries wanting to join the 27-nation club.

Ankara was praised for reaching a deal with Armenia over a "genocide" row going back to World War I — but criticised for refusal to open its ports to Cyprus as demanded under an EU customs accord.

The European Commission called for negotiations to start with Macedonia — long stymied by a row with Greece over its name — and also proposed extending visa-free travel in Europe to Kosovo.

With Croatia nearing the "finishing line" on its bid to join, Iceland added a "new dimension" to its efforts to overtake the remaining wannabees — Albania, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro and Serbia.

But it was the way Brussels assailed Turkey — the biggest candidate, a mainly Muslim country whose future membership is opposed by heavyweights France and Germany — that caught eyes and ears.

"Turkey has a key role in terms of security of energy supplies," said Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, who also welcomed efforts to resolve internal tensions with ethnic Kurds.

However, he said Ankara needed to "revitalise" reform in key areas of "freedom of expression" and "women’s rights."

Turkey last month slapped a 1.75-billion-euro (2.6 billion dollars) fine on opposition press group Dogan.

While Brussels praised the opening of a national Kurdish-language TV channel, Rehn said the EU had "serious concerns" over "political pressure" being applied on the media.

"If a tax fine is worth the annual turnover of the company, it is quite a strong sanction," he said. "It may not only be a fiscal sanction, it feels also like a political sanction."

The commission also expressed concern over a deep rift at the highest levels in Turkish public life after charges were brought against military officers accused of belonging to a clandestine network called Ergenekon.

But the report underlined that a "lack of dialogue and spirit of compromise between political parties is detrimental to the pursuit of reforms."

On overcrowded prisons, it warned that despite Ankara’s stated "zero-tolerance" policy, "allegations of torture and ill-treatment, and impunity for perpetrators are still a cause for concern."

Regarding women, it said "domestic violence, honour killings and early and forced marriages remain serious problems in some areas."

Turkey began accession negotiations in 2005, but has so far opened just 11 of the 35 chapters that candidates must complete, with only one even provisionally closed. Eight others have been frozen since 2006 over the customs dispute with EU member Cyprus.

In Ankara, the Turkish minister responsible for EU relations said the report was generally "positive and even-handed."

Croatia, in pole position to join next, has to focus on judicial reform and war crimes tribunal cooperation, the commission said.

An agreement over a border row is due to be signed on October 23 between Croatia and EU member Slovenia, which would unblock its last three chapters.

Rehn, meanwhile, said the start of negotiations with Macedonia would be "a very strong encouragement to settle the name issue (with Greece)."

The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia — a candidate country since December 2005 — was blocked from joining NATO in April 2008 and has also been blocked by Athens from opening EU negotiations.

In Skopje, as thousands celebrated in the streets carrying Macedonian and EU flags, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said it was a "historic day."

In an effort to speed reform in Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in February 2008 but is not recognised as a state by five EU nations, Brussels offered to "start work towards visa liberalisation" and "prepare trade relations" next year.

Bosnia-Hercegovina, meanwhile, must first show it can "stand on its own feet" and "govern itself effectively."

Roddy Thomson/AFP/Expatica