EU watchdog: Spending on Turkey fails to address democratic problems, press freedom

Billions of euros in financial aid to Turkey from the European Union have barely addressed key problems such as judicial independence and press freedom because of a lack of political will from the Turkish government, according to an official report released by the EU’s spending watchdog.

The EU allocated 3.8 billion euros between 2007 and 2020 to help Turkey in these areas from total spending of 9 billion euros, but the funds have largely failed to address fundamental needs, despite specific and consistent objectives, said research by the EU’s independent external auditor, the European Court of Auditors (ECA), published on Wednesday.

From 2018, the EU “should better target funding for Turkey in areas where reforms are overdue and necessary for credible progress towards EU accession,” said Bettina Jakobsen, the member of the European Court of Auditors responsible for the report.

It focused on the priority areas of the rule of law, governance and human resources (education, employment and social policies), to which 3.8 billion euros had been allocated. But the watchdog slammed the European Commission for failing to attach conditions to the funds. “EU financial assistance for Turkey had only limited effect,” the report stated. “The funds spent have barely addressed a number of fundamental needs.”

According to a report by AFP, the watchdog said the results of the spending “may not be sustainable because of difficulties in spending the funds and backsliding on reforms.”

Brussels has allocated 4.5 billion euros for Ankara to prepare the country for EU membership in its current multi-year budget for 2014-2020. From 2007-2013 it allocated 4.6 billion euros.

Jakobsen said that while the overall program was “well designed,” funding had been particularly ineffective when it came to the independence of the judicial system, fighting corruption and media freedom. These are “areas where critical reforms in Turkey are overdue,” she said, adding that EU funding should target them in the future.

Jakobsen said the European Commission “rarely used the possibility of taking over” their management from Turkey when the money did not achieve the right results. “From 2018 onwards, the Commission should better target funding for Turkey in areas where reforms are overdue and necessary for credible progress towards EU accession,” she said.

At the Turkish end, the ECA blamed delays on a lack of the right staff in key ministries and excessive turnover at the contracts unit which manages most EU funds. Jakobsen complained about “a lack of political will” by Turkish authorities.

The report said there had been some progress by Turkey in economic areas but that these could also be compromised. “In areas where there was more political will, such as customs, employment and taxation, projects did help bring Turkey into line with EU law. But the results may not be sustainable because of difficulties in spending the funds and backsliding on reforms,” said the report.

The ECA report will be sent to the European Parliament’s budget control committee.

EU UNLOCKS NEW 3 MILLION EURO TRANCHE ON MIGRANT DEAL

On Wednesday the EU unlocked a further 3 billion euros for refugees in Turkey, the second tranche of a 2016 deal to curb the flow of migrants coming to Europe. “The Commission is today launching the mobilization for the second 3 billion euro tranche of the facility for refugees in Turkey,” said the European Commission, the EU executive body.

EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said the commission had fully contracted the first 3 billion euros under the deal sealed two years ago at the height of Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War II.

“Now the union and its member states need to fund the second tranche,” Avramopolous told a press conference in Brussels. “It makes sense we follow the same division as before, with the EU budget mobilizing 1 billion euros and the member states delivering the other 2 billion euros,” he said.

Under the deal, all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands must be returned to Turkey. These include both refugees fleeing conflict and persecution as well as economic migrants.

In addition to providing billions in funds in return, the EU agreed other concessions to Turkey such as accelerating plans to bring in visa-free travel for its nationals and boosting negotiations for its membership in the bloc. But these have stalled due to Brussels’ charges against Ankara over rights violation claims in the wake of a coup attempt in July 2016.

Humanitarian groups slammed the deal for deterring people fleeing war-torn countries like Syria, who under international law must be granted asylum.

ECtHR TO STEP IN IF TURKEY’S TOP COURT GOES ON IGNORING RIGHTS VIOLATIONS

Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) will directly review Turkish cases if Turkish courts continue to ignore rulings by Turkey’s Constitutional Court, the country’s highest judicial body, the pro-government Hürriyet daily quoted Council of Europe Secretary-General Thorbjørn Jagland as saying.

Jagland’s comments came as he discussed the case of jailed journalists Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay, which the ECtHR will review on March 20. A local court made history in Turkey when it refused to comply with a ruling by the Constitutional Court that the two journalists should be released on human rights grounds.

The two journalists were arrested after the failed July 2016 coup attempt. Alpay’s case is ongoing, while Altan was sentenced to life imprisonment in February.

Under a state of emergency that has been ongoing since the coup attempt, thousands of Turkish citizens have been arrested or removed from their jobs for alleged links to the coup plotters or other alleged outlawed organisations. The arrests have resulted in a flood of applications made by suspects who feel their rights have been violated.

“If the Constitutional Court’s decisions are not respected, applications made to that court will come directly to the ECtHR,” said Jagland. “If it comes to the point that the Constitutional Court is no longer an effective legal body domestically, the ECtHR will decide on these cases.”

Turkish ambitions to join the EU date back over half a century, but accession talks started in October 2005, after which Brussels started channeling so-called pre-accession funds to Ankara.  However, ties between Turkey and the EU have been strained of late, with Brussels criticizing Turkey over rights and media freedom in the wake of the July 2016 coup attempt. More than 150,000 people have been suspended or sacked in Turkey over alleged links to coup plotters.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker last year ruled out Turkey’s EU membership “for the foreseeable future.”

Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says the measures are necessary to counter the multiple security threats Turkey faces while calling on the EU to open chapters of negotiations in the accession process.

The country’s EU Minister Ömer Çelik said in January that Turkey would reject any offer of “partnership” with the EU that falls short of membership, warning that the current impasse gave Turkey no reason to maintain its migrant deal with the bloc.

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