BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission will criticise Turkey on Wednesday for failing to safeguard the independence of its judges and says it wants to have more discussion on rights as part of Ankara’s bid to join the European Union, according a senior EU official.
The Commission, the EU executive, will make the calls when it publishes its annual report to assess how far Turkey and other countries aspiring to EU membership have progressed in bringing their rules into line with EU standards and values.
“What has happened in Turkey has raised serious doubts about the independence of the judiciary,” said the official, who declined to be named because the report is not yet public.
“There are serious doubts about fundamental freedoms,” the official added, referring to social media and the Internet.
The remarks follow the European Union’s criticism of Ankara’s handling of anti-government protests last year but also come as the West seeks to persuade Turkey to join an international coalition to fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The EU also risks angering Turkey less than a month after Ankara signalled a shift in tone by announcing a new programme to revive its efforts to attain EU membership, a process that has stalled after almost a decade of on-off negotiations.
But the European Commission is concerned about a struggle for influence over the courts as Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan pursues his political foes, part of a corruption scandal which has swirled around Erdogan’s inner circle.
The power struggle dogged Erdogan’s final months as prime minister and saw him purge thousands of police and hundreds of judges and prosecutors, steps that raised concern among Western allies and investors.
In addition, a law tightening government control of the Internet, although annulled by Turkey’s top court, has also alarmed the Commission. Its recommendations influence how EU governments will proceed on Turkey’s membership negotiations.
Turkey, a member of the NATO Western military alliance, began talks to join the EU in 2005, 18 years after applying. But a series of political obstacles, notably over Cyprus, and resistance to Turkish membership in Germany and France mean much of the accession process is frozen.
However, the outgoing Commission, which is due to leave office on Oct.31, will recommend opening a new policy area, or chapter, on the judiciary and fundamental rights as the best way to “provide a roadmap for reforms,” the official said.
“Let’s be credible by putting forward a concrete set of benchmarks for Turkey to meet,” the official said.
Commission President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker has said no new countries will join the European Union over the next five years and wants aspirants to have “an honest European perspective.” EU officials say intensifying membership negotiations is the best way to help Turkey modernise.
But opening a new chapter -- one of 35 it must complete -- will not change the overall picture of a stuttering negotiation.
Turkey is frustrated at what it sees as humiliating treatment by the EU, where public opinion has turned against the membership of a mainly Muslim nation whose population of 75 million would dwarf all EU countries save that of Germany.
While Turkey’s membership bid has faltered, Croatia, which began negotiations on the same day as Turkey, has already joined the bloc.
Membership of the EU means joining the world’s largest trading bloc with its free movement of workers, funding for poorer regions and the offer of greater prosperity for citizens.
Reporting by Robin Emmott Editing by Jeremy Gaunt