Turkey has been curtailing freedom of expression and undermining the independence of its judiciary, the European Commission said Tuesday, in a highly critical report that could clash with efforts to win Ankara's cooperation in handling migrant flows.
The report, part of an annual package on progress by countries aspiring to join the European Union, had initially been expected in October.
The commission has been accused of delaying its publication beyond the November 1 elections in Turkey, which delivered a victory to the party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The EU's executive argued that it was waiting for the most suitable time.
Ankara has been seeking EU membership since 1987, but the negotiations have frequently ground to a halt - mostly because of Franco-German opposition and tensions with Cyprus. The EU has also often criticized Turkey for its questionable human rights record.
"Over the past year, significant shortcomings affected the independence of the judiciary, as well as freedom of assembly and freedoms of expression," EU Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn said of Turkey, as he presented the report in the European Parliament.
"Reforms in these key areas are an indispensable priority in Turkey's accession process - in Turkey's own interest," he added.
The commission report said that in 2015 "the pace of reforms slowed down" in the country, due in part to "protracted elections and the continued political divide." The year also saw "an overall negative trend in the respect for rule of law and fundamental rights" in Turkey, it warned.
It also slammed the "increased pressure" on the media in conjunction with the November elections and limitations on the use of the internet.
Turkey passed new laws on the rule of law, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly that "ran against European standards," the report charged.
It noted that "substantial efforts are needed to restore the independence of the judiciary," which has been in decline since 2014, noting that "judges and prosecutors have been under strong political pressure."
The report addressed Turkey's security situation, after a two-year ceasefire between the state and the armed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) collapsed in July. Hundreds have died in the ensuing violence.
"The escalation of violence in the east and south-east since July gave rise to serious concerns over human rights violations," the commission wrote.
The report described as "imperative" the resumption of peace talks between Ankara and the country's Kurdish minority, and lamented Turkey's "inadequate" track record in the fight against corruption.
The EU has nevertheless been controversially working to secure Turkey's help in stemming the flow of refugees making their way to Europe. Many transit through Turkey. Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans is expected in the country on Tuesday for further talks.
The other EU membership hopefuls for which the commission issued progress reports are Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.
Hahn in particular praised the progress made by Serbia, and expressed confidence that the first negotiating chapters in its EU membership talks could be opened this year. He also warned Macedonia that the start of its accession talks hinged on efforts to resolve an internal political crisis.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said that he does not expect any new countries to join the bloc before 2019.
By Alexandra Mayer-Hohdahl and Helen Maguire
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