BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission urged EU candidate Turkey on Tuesday to lift restrictions on media freedom, respect human rights and stop interfering in the judiciary, criticism that Ankara described as “unfair and excessive”.
In its annual progress report on Turkey, whose decade-long accession talks with the European Union have largely stalled, the Commission called for a relaunch of peace talks with Kurdish militants in the southeast, where violence has surged.
The report also noted with concern President Tayyip Erdogan’s push for a constitutional overhaul that would give him much greater powers.
But the EU executive’s criticisms were cloaked in diplomatic language, reflecting the political sensitivity of dealing with a large, strategically important country whose cooperation Brussels sorely needs in tackling Europe’s migrant crisis.
“Turkey needs to move because there are many areas where they need to deal with basic principles, the fundamentals,” EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn told the European Parliament, referring to human rights and freedom of expression.
The Commission report comes at a difficult time for Turkey, where fighting has resumed between security forces and militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) after the collapse of a ceasefire. Turks have also just handed Erdogan’s AK Party, in power since 2002, a further four years in power in a Nov. 1 election that saw a sharp rise in social and political tensions.
“The Commission hopes to see an end to the escalating violence in Turkey and the return to negotiations on a lasting solution on the Kurdish issue,” said Hahn, an Austrian politician from the center-right.
In its first official response to the EU report, Turkey defended its security measures and said it would continue to pursue reforms and increase living standards on its own terms.
“Some of the comments in the report do not duly reflect Turkey’s reforms in these fields and are also unfair and excessive. Besides, such comments overlook the balance between freedom and security which is a must for democracies where rule of law prevails,” Turkey’s EU ministry said.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Tuesday his new government would pursue major economic, social and judicial reforms in the next six months, without giving details.
Also speaking in Ankara, Erdogan reiterated his support for a new constitution centered on a strong presidency, saying this could be achieved in the next four years.
Erdogan’s critics fear this would consolidate more power in the hands of an authoritarian leader who brooks little dissent. Under Turkey’s current constitution, the president is a largely ceremonial figure.
The EU criticism of Turkey and of Erdogan, who served as prime minister for a decade before moving to the presidential palace, has been relatively muted due to the migrant crisis.
The progress report, whose publication was delayed until after the election to avoid upsetting Erdogan and the mildly Islamist AK Party, praised Turkey for sheltering millions of refugees fleeing the civil war in neighboring Syria.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who visited Istanbul before the vote, says there can be no solution to the migration crisis without Turkey, which shares a long border with Syria and Iraq.
The Commission is negotiating a deal for Turkey to absorb more Syrian refugees in return for easier visa access to the EU, cash and an acceleration of membership talks.
The EU accession talks with NATO member Turkey, a mainly Muslim nation of 75 million people, have long been a source of controversy, not least because of the Cyprus issue.
On Tuesday Hahn said Turkey’s accession talks could speed up in the event of a peace deal between the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government and the breakaway Turkish Cypriots in the north of the island who are backed by Ankara.
Additional reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul; editing by Gareth Jones