EU ministers shy away from halting Turkey accession talks

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 13, 2016 6:54 AM

By Gabriela Baczynska and Robert-Jan Bartunek

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU foreign ministers said on Tuesday the bloc would not push ahead with membership talks with Turkey but rejected calls by Austria and European lawmakers to freeze the process because of Ankara's security crackdown.

The bloc has criticized Ankara's sweeping dismissals and arrests over a failed July putsch but is wary of upsetting Turkey too much as it needs its cooperation on curbing immigration to the bloc and dealing with the conflict in Syria.

Turkey has jailed some 36,000 people pending trial and sacked or suspended more than 100,000 over their alleged support of the coup plotters. The EU worries that Erdogan is using the coup as a pretext to go after his critics.

Several foreign ministers arriving for a meeting in Brussels argued against calls from Austria for a tough stand against Ankara. The European Parliament has also passed a resolution calling for a freeze in talks.

"It is needed to go further on some collaboration with Turkey, it is true for fight against terrorism, capacity to exchange information on fighters, also to manage together the migration issue," Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said.

"About the accession process, it is true that it's impossible now to go further with such a very difficult situation in Turkey ... we will say certainly that it is impossible to open new chapters for the accession process."

France's Europe Minister Harlem Desir agreed, adding he wanted "a demanding, clear and firm dialogue on the principles and values which are those of Europe".

Arguing for a tougher line, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said: "Accession talks with Turkey have to be put on hold ... Turkey has drifted away from Europe more and more and, over the past months, this development has increased in terms of drama and speed."

The Netherlands is also with the hawkish camp. But EU leaders are not likely to agree a formal halt of the accession process, which would be a slap in the face of Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan, when they meet in Brussels on Thursday.

Diplomats said the EU is instead mulling shifting pre-accession funds that it is giving to Ankara, directing them instead more firmly at Turkish civil society.

It has also said the accession process would come to an automatic end should Ankara reinstate the death penalty.

Germany has also spoken clearly against a formal freeze of the accession talks of Turkey, a mainly Muslim country of 79 million people.

The talks have made relatively little progress in over a decade and the latest souring of relations between the EU and Turkey makes any new advancement politically impossible now.

"The accession negotiations have come to a standstill for months and I don't see any movement in the next couple of months," said EU enlargement chief Johannes Hahn.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Robert-Jan Bartunek and Tom Koerkemeier; Editing by Tom Heneghan)