BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union reprimanded EU candidate Turkey on Wednesday for political meddling in the judiciary, saying a response to a government corruption scandal has harmed the independence of the judiciary and weakened civil rights.
The unusually harsh language by the European Commission, the European Union’s executive, raises questions about Turkey’s chances of EU membership almost a decade after negotiations were launched.
But in its annual report on countries seeking to join the bloc, Brussels said it still believes more talks are possible, recommending opening discussions on the judiciary and fundamental rights as a way to force Turkey to confront the issue.
Turkey, Montenegro, Serbia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are all seeking membership of the world’s largest trading bloc.
Of most concern to the Commission, which helps EU governments decide who to let into the bloc, is Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s struggle for influence over the courts to pursue his political foes. It is linked to a corruption scandal which has swirled around Erdogan’s inner circle.
“The response of the government following allegations of corruption in December 2013 has given rise to serious concerns regarding the independence of the judiciary and separation of powers,” the Commission said.
The Commission chided Turkey over a law tightening government control of the Internet, although it has since been annulled by Turkey’s top court. The Commission said attempts to ban social media “reflect a restrictive approach to freedom of expression.”
The criticism comes as the West is seeking to persuade Turkey to join an international coalition to fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Turkey’s long-term relations with minority Kurds both inside and outside its borders is also complicating the situation. Many Kurds are seeking their own homeland, something Ankara vehemently rejects.
The EU also risks angering Turkey less than a month after Ankara signaled a shift in tone by announcing a new program to revive its efforts to attain EU membership.
A power struggle over the Turkish judiciary 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.
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 European Commission, which is due to leave office on Oct.31, recommends opening a new policy area, or chapter, on the judiciary and fundamental rights to provide “ a comprehensive roadmap for reforms”, the report said.
Editing by Jeremy Gaunt