BRUSSELS (AP) — The nation that will take on the European Union presidency at the end of the month held out a diplomatic hand to Turkey on Monday and insisted the bloc needed to "give some positive signals" if it wanted to get more cooperation from Ankara.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Malta Foreign Minister George Vella said the 28-nation EU needed to make more efforts toward visa liberalization for Turkey, a sign Malta wants to keep the EU's important neighbor as a close partner.
Highlighting the differences within the bloc over how to deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vella's remarks came shortly after Austria demanded that the EU freeze membership talks with Turkey over Ankara's massive crackdown on alleged sympathizers after a failed coup attempt in July.
Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said "it is wrong to continue accession negotiations as if nothing negative has happened in Turkey."
Instead, Vella stressed the need to keep diplomatic channels open, even though the EU said only last week that Turkey has made virtually no progress on meeting conditions to earn visa-free travel for its citizens. Such visa liberalization is a key part of the EU-Turkey deal to prevent migrants from reaching Europe.
"The Turks say they stuck to their side of the bargain, which is true and we know that migration has practically stopped across the Aegean but at the same time what did we give them in return? This is the point," Vella said. "We have to give some positive signals if we want to see more cooperation from the other side."
Vella said Turkey should be enticed step by step.
"I don't see difficulties in talking about visa liberalization, you know on a gradual basis — for example opening up for diplomatic passports, opening up for special passports, opening up for businessmen who regularly visit Europe, young people," he said.
Malta takes over the EU presidency from Slovakia on Jan. 1, and will be in an ideal position to help shape the agenda and act as a go-between on contentious issues like relations with Turkey, and with Britain, which has voted to leave the EU.
EU leaders will discuss the EU-Turkey refugee deal Thursday.
Erdogan threatened to open border gates after the European Parliament called last month for a freeze on membership talks. Since the coup attempt, Turkish authorities have arrested almost 38,000 people and purged more than 100,000 others from government jobs.
Vella acknowledged "excessive measures being taken by the administration" in Ankara but guarded against tough language that could be seen as a provocation.
"The more we speak about it, the more we see Erdogan becoming more obstinate. It is very sad because I strongly believe we should try and do all we can to keep the best communication open," he said.
Associated Press Writer Lorne Cook contributed to this story.