BRUSSELS – Turkey's longtime goal of joining the European Union, like a mirage in the desert, seems to fade further into the distance as time goes by. On Wednesday, the goal receded a little further as the EU issued a report that was scathing toward Turkey's regard for fundamental rights and freedom of expression — bedrock values for any country wishing to join the European club.
Turkey slammed the report, calling it a biased attempt by the crisis-burdened EU to delay Turkish membership.
The EU's criticism came in a document produced by its executive branch, the European Commission, that assessed the progress and challenges facing would-be EU members. In customary EU fashion, the report said that each country had made significant accomplishments but had more work to do. The EU has long held out the lure of membership as a way of exporting its democratic values to countries that wish to benefit from its common market.
Croatia, for example, is scheduled to become the next EU member — the 28th — on July 1, 2013. The report said Croatia had made good progress overall, but needed to follow through on increasing transparency in public procurement and party financing.
But for Turkey, the goal seems to become ever more distant. The country first applied for membership in what was then called the European Economic Community in 1987. It was granted the status of an EU candidate country in 1999.
But Wednesday's report offered scant hope of membership anytime soon.
True to form, the EU report offered praise. Turkey is continuing to play a positive role in supporting reform movements in North Africa and the Middle East, the report said, adding that cooperation with Turkey regarding Syria, where civilians are dying in the midst of a civil war, was helpful.
But then the other shoe dropped.
"Concerns are growing," the report said, "regarding Turkey's lack of substantial progress towards fully meeting the political criteria." It cited "recurring infringements of the right to liberty and security and a fair trial, as well as of the freedom of expression, assembly and association." It said there were issues regarding the independence of the judiciary, as well as further restrictions of the media freedom and a growing number of court cases against writers and journalists.
Turkey, unsurprisingly, was not pleased. The government claimed the report was influenced by what Turkey believes to be Greek Cypriot bias against the country. Cyprus is already an EU member.
"The 2012 progress report is a reflection of the desire of the EU, which is suffering an economic and political crisis, to delay Turkey's membership through various excuses," Egemen Bagis, the minister in charge of relations with EU, said in a news conference in Istanbul.
"Too much emphasis was placed on isolated incidents, and dangerous generalizations were reached through these isolated incidents," Bagis said.
He said that whereas the annual reports normally serve as a guide to Turkey regarding its EU aspirations, the new report was a disappointment.
Beyond the EU's specific complaints, other issues may be at play. What, for example, should the European Union be about — and where should its boundaries be? Turkey is a large country, by European standards — more than eight times the size of Portugal — and it is 99.8 percent Muslim.
Meanwhile, Turkey has done itself no favors by refusing to deal in any way with Cyprus, the country that currently holds the rotating six-month EU presidency.
Turkey does not recognize Cyprus as a sovereign nation and opposed it taking over the EU presidency. The island was split into an internationally recognized Greek-speaking south and a breakaway Turkish-speaking north in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Only the Greek section is part of the EU.
The EU report also assessed the progress of several other countries — Iceland, Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia, Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo. The assessments were generally positive, though the report urged Serbia to normalize relations with Kosovo, which Serbia regards as a renegade province rather than as an independent country.
Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report. Don Melvin can be reached at http://twitter.com/Don_Melvin .