European Union candidate Turkey said on Wednesday it was determined to pursue its bid to join the 27-member bloc after the European Commission urged Ankara in a progress report to speed up reforms. Brussels strongly criticized the Turkish government over human rights, in particular press freedom and women's rights. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul on the growing concern that Turkey's EU membership bid is in danger of coming to a halt.
In its annual report card on membership readiness, the European Commission, the EU's executive body, called Turkey a reliable international partner and a key energy transit route. But Brussels warned the country that it must work harder on political and human rights reforms, particularly involving women.
Human rights groups also have criticized Turkey, saying it does not do enough to protect women. Recently, there has been an uproar over a Turkish court's decision to release from prison a journalist who is accused of raping a 14-year-old girl on grounds that a report concluded that girl was not psychologically affected by the attack.
The EU report will likely fuel growing criticism in Turkey that Ankara's membership drive has slowed, if not stopped, since formal talks on accession began in 2005. But Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan downplayed the latest EU criticisms.
"Until Turkey becomes a full member, we will have criticisms about things which we have not yet done," said Ali Babacan. "But on the other hand, we have prepared our national program which is almost finalized, which will cover wide variety of reforms."
Another topic of concern involves freedom of speech. Turkish courts have blocked access to several Internet web sites, including the popular video-sharing site YouTube, for allegedly insulting prominent Turks or for allegedly promoting Kurdish rebel propaganda. Newspapers are no exception.
At the daily meeting of the Taraf newspaper, the editorial board discusses the latest threats of prosecution by Turkey's armed forces. The paper regularly challenges the country's generals for their handling of the war against Kurdish separatists and their involvement in Turkish politics.
But that stance, according to the paper's deputy editor Yasmin Congar, has made it a powerful enemy.
"There are certain threats, a certain pressure, not only from the military, but from the government as well," said Yasmin Congar. "But it does not change much for us really. We will keep doing this, nothing will stop us. Officials in Turkey, both civilian and military, will have to get used to life in a democratic society."
Still the 2008 EU report card praises Turkey for making progress on economic reforms and solidifying trade ties with the European Union.
Since 1995, trade between the EU and Turkey has almost tripled to $120 billion, according to EU estimates, and it continues to grow.