BRUSSELS (AP) — Turkey's crackdown on the media and reported human rights abuses are pushing the country further away from Europe even as it hopes to join the European Union, a senior EU official said Thursday.
European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans told EU lawmakers that "the distance between us and Turkey is not decreasing, it is increasing."
"If they want to come closer to Europe — that is what they state — they should improve the situation of the media, of human rights, of civil society," he said.
Timmermans is a key negotiator of the widely criticized EU-Turkey agreement to stem the flow of migrants to Greece.
Human rights and media freedom groups have repeatedly sounded the alarm over the limited tolerance of dissent shown by authorities in Turkey, where nearly 2,000 legal cases have been opened against people accused of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since he came to office in 2014.
A Turkish-Dutch reporter who writes for The Netherlands' Metro newspaper is one of the latest to be caught up. She has been barred from leaving Turkey while authorities investigate whether she should be charged with insulting Erdogan.
Timmermans, who is Dutch and a former foreign minister, also emphasized that Turkey must fully respect all the conditions necessary to secure a visa-waiver for its citizens wanting to travel to Europe for short-term leisure or business stays.
"The onus is on Turkey. They have to comply with the 72 benchmarks that are in there," he said. "We will not play around with those benchmarks. They are clear, they are legally framed."
The Commission on May 4 will release a report on whether Ankara has fulfilled the requirements. If it has, the EU executive will recommend a visa waiver for Turkey by June 30.
The move is part of a package of incentives offered to Turkey — including up to 6 billion euros ($6.8 billion) in aid for Syrian refugees and fast-track EU membership talks — to persuade Ankara to stop migrants heading to Europe.
Erdogan has warned that the migrant agreement would collapse if the Europeans renege on any promises.