EU report slams Turkey for 'backsliding' on rights

Brussels (AFP) - The EU accused Ankara Tuesday of backsliding on rule of law, rights and the media and urged it to react swiftly, in a sensitive report on Turkey's candidacy for the bloc that Brussels had delayed until after elections.

Turkey rejected the observations as "unfair" and bristled in particular at criticism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country's hard-charging president, whose party returned to power in the November 1 vote.

In a report likely to further strain EU-Turkish relations, Brussels said that under Erdogan there had been "serious backsliding" on freedom of expression and that the judiciary had been undermined.

"Over the past year, significant shortcomings affected the independence of the judiciary as well as freedom of assembly and freedom of expression," EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said as he unveiled the report.

Hahn praised Turkey's "humanitarian support" in hosting more than two million refugees and said the EU had to step up its cooperation with Ankara to tackle the migration crisis.

But the report said Turkish commitment to joining the 28-nation bloc was "offset" by domestic actions that "ran against European standards".

"The new government formed after the repeat election on 1 November will need to address these urgent priorities," the summary said.

The report highlighted criminal cases against journalists and writers, intimidation of media outlets and changes to Internet law.

"After several years of progress on freedom of expression, serious backsliding was seen over the past two years," it said.

It added that the "independence of the judiciary and the principle of separation of powers have been undermined since 2014 and judges and prosecutors have been under strong political pressure."

- Kurdish peace talks urged -

Turkey had meanwhile seen a "severe deterioration of its security situation" including a huge suicide bombing on a peace rally just before the election, the report said.

It called on the government to restart peace talks with the Kurdish separatist PKK group -- deemed a terrorist organisation by both Turkey and the EU -- after fighting between the Kurds and security forces torpedoed a ceasefire.

The tough-worded report had been expected to be released in October but was held back until after legislative elections in which Erdogan's AKP party stormed back to a majority.

The Turkish government said some of the report's observations were "unfair and even partly disproportionate, and ignore the freedom-security balance required in a democratic country governed by the rule of law".

It also dismissed as "unacceptable" EU criticism about Erdogan's use of powers as laid down in the constitution and said Brussels was meddling in Turkish judicial independence.

Erdogan, who became prime minister in 2003 and then Turkey's first directly-elected president in 2014, was initially hailed in the West, but a brutal crackdown on protests in 2013 and a purge of the judiciary have cooled relations with Washington and Brussels.

The report's release comes just over a month after the EU announced a refugee cooperation deal with Turkey, the main launching point for migrants coming to Europe, including a possible three billion euros ($3.3 billion) in aid.

The deal included pushing forward Turkey's long-stalled accession process, which has inched forward since starting in 2005, and speeding up visa liberalisation for Turks travelling to the EU, but was played down by Erdogan shortly after its announcement.

Turkey will be the main subject of a special EU migration summit being held in Malta on Thursday following a meeting of EU and African leaders, a senior EU source said.

The possibility of a Turkey-EU summit would likely be discussed at the summit, while EU states would also be brought up to date with negotiations with Ankara as many remain "in the dark", the source said.

Turkey first sought EU membership in 1987 but its bid has made poor progress, with issues such as fundamental freedoms and the future of Cyprus proving to be major obstacles.

Out of 35 "chapters," or policy areas for which agreement is needed, 14 still need to be completed.