EU hails Turkish reforms, calls for 'truly participatory democracy'

EU hails Turkish reforms, calls for 'truly participatory democracy'

A keenly awaited European Union report unveiled on Wednesday hails reforms carried out by Turkey but also urges the Turkish government to develop a truly participatory democracy, criticizing Turkey for what it called "an uncompromising stance" against dissent and a failure to protect fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and assembly Today`s Zaman reported.

The European Commission's 2013 Progress Report on Turkey stresses a number of important steps taken by Turkey over the past 12 months, notably the adoption of a fourth judicial reform package and the start of a process to end terrorism and violence in the Southeast of the country. At the same time, the report emphasizes the pressing need to develop a truly participatory democracy, able to reach out to all segments of society, as well as the clear requirement to further amend criminal legislation and reform its interpretation by the courts so as to ensure respect for fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. These issues underline the importance for the EU to enhance its engagement with Turkey, especially on fundamental rights, so that it remains the benchmark for reforms in the country.

The report hailed Turkey's reform efforts, namely the adoption of an important judiciary reform package, the announcement of a democratization package and the start of talks aiming to end terrorism and violence in the Southeast of the country and to pave the way for a resolution of the Kurdish issue.

The report also lauded the Turkish government for maintaining its overall commitment to further democratization and political reforms but at the same time criticized the "divisive political climate" that prevailed in Turkey, in particular the government's "uncompromising stance" during summer protests.

"Nevertheless, a divisive political climate prevailed; the government notably adopted overall an uncompromising stance during the protest late May and early June, including a polarizing tone towards citizens, civil society organisation and businesses," the report said.

The report also criticized the government for failing to conduct sufficient consultations with stakeholders on the adoption of key policies and legislation and failed to carry out adequate impact assessments. "Examples included the Law on Metropolitan Municipalities, the draft Law on the Court of Accounts, and legislation restricting the advertisement and sale of alcoholic beverages," it said.

On the other hand, the report praised President Abdullah Gul's conciliatory role across Turkey's political spectrum and society, recalling his warnings against polarization, including during the demonstrations in May and June, when he defended the right to peaceful assembly and dissent.

"He also continued to stress the need to pursue political reforms in line with Turkey's EU accession perspective. The President lent active support to the peace process aimed at ending terrorism and violence in the Southeast of the country, the ultimate purpose of which he defined as raising the democratic standards of Turkey," it said.

Excessive use of force a matter of concern

The report also noted alleged violations of human rights during the protests in May and June across the country, which it says underline the need for far-reaching reforms in order to ensure respect for freedom of assembly in line with European standards. "On several occasions, there were scenes of violence, leading in several instances to deaths, disruption of demonstrations and disproportionate use of force by the police against demonstrators, e.g. in rallies in connection with the Taksim and Gezi Park protests in İstanbul, students' rights, the environment, the activities of the Higher Education Board (YÖK) and trade union rights," the EU said.

Noting that good progress was made in terms of establishing Turkey's human rights mechanisms and institutions, the report said these institutions have yet to develop a track record as regards effectiveness and impartiality. "Pressure on human rights defenders continued. Excessive use of force, notably during the demonstrations in May and June, continues to be a matter for concern. Steps were taken to tackle impunity, including lifting the statute of limitations for offences of torture," the report said.

Stating that judgments were issued in a limited number of high-profile cases, the report said more efforts are required to tackle the security forces' long-standing practice of lodging counter-allegations, promote independent and impartial investigations into allegations of torture and ill-treatment by the police and establish the truth about the numerous cases of extrajudicial killings in the 1990s.

The executive European Commission published its annual progress reports on Wednesday assessing how far Ankara and other countries aspiring to membership have come in bringing their laws and behavior into line with EU standards.

EU governments have said they will take this year's report into account in deciding whether to revive Turkey's frozen accession process by opening talks on a new policy area, known as a chapter, the first to be opened in three years.

Turkey began negotiations 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 key members Germany and France have slowed progress to a snail's pace.

EU governments, led by Berlin, postponed plans to extend the talks to regional policy in June as a rebuke for the Turkish authorities' handling of environmentalist demonstrations.

Protests swept Turkish cities after police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse a sit-in staged against the redevelopment of an İstanbul park. Two weeks of clashes with police left four people dead and about 7,500 injured.

Turkey is deeply frustrated at what it sees as humiliating treatment by Europe, which has turned its public opinion against EU membership. Turkish EU negotiator Egemen Bagıs complained this month that the EU has held dozens of summits with Russia, China, Brazil and other partners in the last decade but only one with Turkey and other candidate countries.

Bagıs had complained on Twitter at the weekend about the EU publishing the report during the Muslim Eid al Adha festival, which began on Monday afternoon and lasts all week.

His press adviser confirmed to Reuters on Wednesday that the government would not issue a response until after the holiday.

New round of talks

EU governments will consider the commission's report at a meeting on Oct. 22 and EU sources say they could decide to launch a new round of talks with Turkey in early November.

Ankara has provisionally completed just one of 35 chapters of accession talks. It has opened a dozen more policy areas but most of the rest are blocked due to disputes over the divided island of Cyprus or hostility from some EU members.

The commission hopes the EU and Turkey will be able to sign an agreement for Turkey to readmit illegal immigrants sent back from the EU and start talks before the end of the year on easing visa requirements for Turks traveling to the EU, the source said.

While Turkey's membership bid has languished, Brussels has moved faster to integrate the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Croatia, which began negotiations on the same day as Turkey, has already joined the bloc and Serbia won a green light in June to start negotiations by next January.

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