The EU has called on Turkey to open up trade with Cyprus, to better promote gender equality and human rights, and to toe the line on foreign policy issues in a lukewarm appraisal of Ankara's path towards EU membership.
The European Union announced on Tuesday that only one of seven candidates for membership in the bloc is close to achieving its goal.
"The negotiations with Croatia are now in their final phase," the European Commission said in its annual report on the progress of would-be EU members.
The Commission pointed to widespread corruption and organized crime problems in other western Balkan applicant countries as the biggest hurdle to their joining the bloc in the short term, although it did announce that Montenegro was ready for full candidate status, saying the country's democracy "is largely in line with European principles and standards."
Montenegro's application has already been recognized by the EU, and with the Commission's approval, member states will now debate whether to grant the country candidate status and begin the process of negotiating membership. Croatia, Iceland, Turkey and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are the four candidates that have already reached this final phase of the accession process.
Turkey began its official negotiations five years ago, but the EU acknowledged in its report that the process has hit rather rocky ground.
"Negotiations advanced, albeit rather slowly," the Commission said of accession talks with Ankara.
Several stumbling blocks
Despite praising constitutional reforms designed to fight corruption, wrest some political power away from the military, and improve the protection of human rights as "a step in the right direction," the Commission said that Turkey was still lagging behind in areas like press freedom, freedom of expression and religion, the rights of women and trade unions, and the integration of the Kurdish minority in the country.
"The pace of reform in Turkey dictates the pace of the accession process," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin, shortly after the report was released.
The European Commission also called on Turkey to open trade ties with Cyprus and redouble diplomatic efforts with the country, describing the need for progress in this area as "urgent." EU member state Cyprus and Turkey are locked in a territorial dispute over the northern part of the island, which has been occupied by Turkish forces since 1974. Reunification talks have stalled, and Turkey says it will not open trade ties with Cyprus until the problem is resolved. And while Cyprus tries to slow Turkey's accession into the EU, Turkey is using its membership of NATO to hamper Cyprus' bid to join that alliance.
Commission's annual report is the sheer size of the country. A 2009 census put Turkey's population at 72 million, which would make it the second most populous member of the bloc.
"That means Turkey would be represented in the European Parliament with a number of MPs to reflect its size, and the size of its population would also mean a lot of weight in decisions in the Council of Ministers," the head of the EU program at the German Council on Foreign Relations, Almut Moeller, told Deutsche Welle. Moeller said that EU insiders often talk about the influence Turkey would wield in the bloc, and the affect it would have on the larger countries and their power structure.
"This is a sensitively calibrated order that has been around for a while now, and in the past we have only seen smaller and medium-sized countries entering the bloc. They have relatively little impact on the big players, but imagine what a country this size would mean for the old order, for the amount of power currently shared between France and Germany in the EU, for instance."
Gul: 'Strategic imperative' to let Turkey in
Five years ago, there was an outpouring of pro-European sentiment and euphoria in Turkey when the country began the final phase of the EU accession process. But the mood seems to be souring as other applicants make much smoother process towards membership in the bloc.
On Monday, Brussels announced plans to grant visa-free travel within the EU's open-border Schengen zone to people from Albania and Bosnia, and the Turkish newspaper Haber Tuerk responded by proclaiming on Tuesday's front page: "Everyone's allowed into the EU, except us."
Citizens from every Balkan country except Kosovo, which some EU members consider a part of Serbia, are now free to travel within the EU's open-border area, while Turks have to seek special visas.
"The EU will not be weaker, but stronger both politically and economically with Turkey's membership," Turkish President Abdullah Gul said in a speech in London on Monday. "Given the fact that the international balance of power tends to shift towards the East and Asia, it is, indeed, a strategic imperative for the EU to have Turkey as a member."
Gul, speaking to the Chatham House think-tank after receiving the organization's annual prize for statesmanship, said it was "sad to observe" that some European leaders did not recognize the role Turkey could play within the EU.
"This short-sighted vision is the major impediment before the idea of the EU as a global actor, capable of assuming greater responsibilities on political and security issues, complementing its economic clout," the Turkish president said.
In his speech, Gul also announced that neighboring Iran had asked Turkey to host another round of talks with UN Security Council members and Germany on Tehran's nuclear program, alluding to the diplomatic role his country might play for the EU.
However, Turkey's international activities were also singled out by the EU for veiled criticism on Tuesday, after the country defied the US and EU to vote against tougher UN sanctions for Iran earlier this year.
"Turkey's foreign policy has become more active in its wider neighborhood," the commission's report said. "This is an asset for the European Union, provided it is developed as a complement to Turkey's accession process and in coordination with the EU."