BRUSSELS – The European Union told Turkey on Wednesday to speed up reforms to boost its chances of joining the bloc and made a special appeal to protect the freedom of expression of Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.
The European Commission's annual progress report on Turkish membership said Ankara has improved its handling of human rights issues and the Kurdish minority. But it said that overall, a lot more work needed to be done for membership.
The EU and Turkey started membership negotiations in 2005, but they have made little progress since, while France and Germany have expressed opposition to Turkey's bid.
The report did not yet take on board Turkey's recent moves to end a century of enmity with neighboring Armenia, a new momentum which has been welcomed around the world and which EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn also highlighted.
"I'm encouraged by the historic steps Turkey and Armenia have just taken toward normalizing their relations. This process should now lead to full normalization as soon as possible," Rehn said in a statement.
Egemen Bagis, Turkey's chief EU negotiator, welcomed the EU progress report as "the most objective report so far."
Bagis told Turkish media that it touched on Turkey's accomplishments as well as shortcomings, putting the blame on Turkey's opposition for delaying some crucial reforms.
Bagis said Turkey will work to carry out more reforms, but he did not mention the critical issue of Cyprus, where Turkish troops are based in the Turkish Cypriot north, a legacy of a 1974 invasion after a coup attempt by backers of union with Greece.
Rehn warned Ankara it should do more to shield Turkish writer Pamuk from court cases undermining freedom of speech. A Turkish Appeals Court ruled last week that anyone could seek compensation from Pamuk for his allegedly inflammatory remarks about the mass killing of Armenians and Kurds in Turkey's past. There already have been six separate cases by Turkish individuals, including nationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz.
"This is not giving a positive message how Turkey is addressing freedom of expression. I appeal to the government of Turkey that it should take measures to avoid this kind of problem," said Rehn.
In the report, the European Commission said the Turkish government has not used its large parliamentary majority to push through more reform measures. But bitter divisions between the Islamic-oriented government and opposition lawmakers have slowed advances.
"Little progress can be reported on effective implementation of political and constitutional reforms," said the report.
On civil rights, it said that "allegations of torture and ill-treatment, and impunity for perpetrators, are still a cause for great concern, and need to become a priority area."
Rehn also sought to center on the positive of what had been achieved in other sectors.
The report largely reflected the political stalemate that has grown between the two sides.
Turkey's enthusiasm for EU membership has eroded under internal tension, European skepticism and a dispute over divided Cyprus, an EU member. Key European leaders, in turn, fear an influx of migrants, worry about human rights and wonder about admitting a huge Muslim nation into a 27-nation bloc that has struggled to integrate its own Muslim minorities.
There have been efforts within the EU to dilute the membership talks and redirect the cooperation between Turkey and the bloc to something less than full membership.
Turkey has seen this as a snub and reform has not proceeded as fast as many want. Increasingly, the EU-backed reform program lacks the vigor that it enjoyed in the early years of the administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Plans to reform the constitution, a legacy of military rule, have stalled. The Turkish military has kept a relatively low profile, but still acts with an independence unseen in European countries.