The European Union on Tuesday severely criticized Turkey for a series of flaws in its respect for human rights and democratic standards at a time when the continental bloc is looking to Ankara to help deal with the migrant crisis.
In an annual report to prepare for possible Turkish membership, the EU said that on political issues "the pace of reforms slowed down," adding that some key legislation "ran against European standards."
The full report, long delayed until after the Turkish elections on Nov. 1, also said that "major shortcomings remain" when it comes to the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
In an initial assessment for the European Parliament, EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn told legislators that "over the past year, significant shortcomings affected the independence of the judiciary as well as freedom of assembly and freedom expression."
He specifically cited "increased pressure and intimidation of journalists and media outlets" on top of the muzzling of internet reporting.
Turkey has rejected the findings, calling them unfair.
Ankara has long been criticized for actions taken against journalists. Earlier this year, media watchdog Bianet reported that there were 32 journalists and news publishers in prison in Turkey. Almost all of those were charged with leading or being affiliated with illegal armed groups under the Turkish Penal Code and the Anti-Terrorism Act.
More recently, three reporters with VICE News were charged in August with "deliberately aiding an armed organization" in Turkey. Critics have seized on the case, saying it underlined how the pretext of security has been used by Ankara as a cover to crack down on media and Internet freedoms. The three journalists were arrested Aug. 27 in the southeastern town of Diyarkbakir, a Kurdish-dominated city where the PKK — which Washington, Brussels and Ankara all consider a terrorist organization — is active.
Despite the negative review of Turkey's progress on rights, the EU fears pushing too hard against Turkey, given the country’s importance as a buffer zone to the conflict in Syria. Turkey currently holds more Syrian refugees than any other country, and many European leaders would prefer that refugees who have headed for the European heartland stay in Turkey.
Still, Tuesday’s report appeared to indicate that any prospect for Turkish membership to the EU remains a long shot possibility for now.
Instead of coming closer to EU standards on democratic principles, the report said, there is "significant backsliding in the areas of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly."
It said corruption in Turkey remains widespread and its fight against it "inadequate." For all these reasons, there is still a strong belief the EU shouldn't be too accommodating toward Ankara, migrant crisis or not.
"This report highlights how wrong it would be for the EU to try and should outsource its refugee crisis to Turkey," said Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the ALDE liberal group in the European Parliament.
"The EU will only be able to maintain pressure on Turkey, with regards to democratic reforms and its policy on Syria, if we are able to fully control migration and external EU borders ourselves," Verhofstadt said.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press