9th Jun 2023

EU steps up pressure on Turkey to revise penal code

The European Commission has announced it will require a revision of Turkey's penal code as a condition for Ankara's progress in EU talks on judicial affairs, while hinting that it could receive a green light for negotiations in two other politically uncontroversial areas in the coming weeks.

"Now is the time for Turkey to regenerate the momentum of the reform process," EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn told journalists on Tuesday (6 October) when presenting the commission's report on the progress the country has made over the past year on its path towards the bloc's membership.

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  • Olli Rehn (l) has urged Turkey to reform further (Photo: European Commission)

He noted that Ankara faced a serious domestic political situation, with both parliamentary and presidential elections held earlier this year, which resulted in the strengthening of the democratic character of its key institutions.

But Turkey made no real progress in reforming the existing restrictions in the area of freedom of expression although the revision of those practises are "urgently needed," according to the commissioner.

"The infamous article 301 must be repealed or amended without delay," Mr Rehn suggested, referring to the article in the country's penal code which criminalizes insults against "Turkishness".

He added, "This is not acceptable in a European democracy that writers, journalists, academics and other intellectuals are prosecuted for simply expressing a critical but completely non-violent opinion."

In a bid to step up pressure for Ankara's action on the matter, Brussels has proposed that the opening of its negotiating chapter in the area of judiciary and fundamental rights only be approved after its penal code is revised.

Promise of move ahead

On a more positive side, the EU executive suggested that Turkey could in the coming weeks open talks on two politically uncontroversial areas, consumer and health protection and Trans-European Networks (TENs).

Mr Rehn's suggestion comes despite statements by French president Nicolas Sarkozy who argued that any further progress for Turkey would be approved by Paris only if member states agree to his idea of setting up a "wise men committee" on the EU's future.

The Finnish commissioner remarked that he expects all national capitals to respect the negotiating framework previously adopted by them for talks with Turkey which states that if a chapter is technically ready to be opened, the EU should proceed with it.

Last year, EU member states agreed to suspend eight chapters of Turkey's 35-chapter EU negotiations package, sanctioning Ankara for its continuing blockade on traffic from EU member state Cyprus - which is illegal under an EU-Turkey customs agreement.

In its report published on Tuesday, the commission notes that since then Turkey has made "no progress on normalising bilateral relations" with Nicosia.

Key points of criticism

Apart from the criticism on freedom of speech, the EU executive also pointed out that "the armed forces continue to exercise significant political influence," in Turkey, particularly through public statements by senior generals on issues such as Cyprus, secularism and the Kurdish question.

Similarly, "no progress" was seen in the area of protection of minorities and ensuring cultural diversity in line with EU principles, the commission says.

"Children whose mother tongue is not Turkish cannot learn their mother tongue in the Turkish public schooling system," the document says, adding that particularly strict restrictions remain on the Kurdish language.

Non-Muslim religious communities "continued to face problems such as restricted property rights" while the legal framework guaranteeing gender equality is in place but needs to be "translated into social reality," according to the report.

Brussels' evaluation was welcomed by most EU observers closely following the candidate country.

The centre-right spokesman of the European parliament on Turkey, Dutch MEP Ria Oomen-Ruijten, noted "After recent elections, the Turkish government has to use its strong mandate to make necessary reforms."

Socialist group spokesmen Dutch Jan Marinus Wiersma and Austrian Hannes Swoboda stated, "The slowdown in reform was understandable, up to a point, in the past election year. But now that [prime minister] Erdogan has a strong mandate, he should seize this opportunity to restore the reform process."

And the Green Dutch MEP and chairman of the Turkey-EU delegation, Joost Lagendijk, said, "This report reflects the broad feeling in Europe that badly-needed reforms in Turkey must not be put on the long finger. There are no excuses to justify further delay".


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