BRUSSELS (AP) — High-level talks that European Union officials had with Turkey's foreign minister Tuesday did not appear to ease tensions between the 28-nation bloc and Ankara over a wave of detentions of human rights defenders, journalists and others.
After the meeting in Brussels, European enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn expressed "very strong concern" about the detentions, while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu defended them as a necessary part of his country's fight against extremism.
Turkey has been mired in a diplomatic row with EU powerhouse and fellow NATO ally Germany following the arrests last week of a group of human rights activists, including a German national, on terror-related charges. Earlier, a German-Turkish journalist was arrested for allegedly spying and aiding Kurdish rebels.
Before the talks in Brussels started, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signaled that the era of Turkey bowing to Western pressure was over.
"The West wants Turkey to bring about their demands no questions asked... I am sorry to say that Turkey no longer exists," Erdogan told a meeting of his ruling party's legislators.
The meeting in Brussels was formally about Turkey's long-stalled bid for EU membership, the fight against terrorism and energy and trade ties. But they were held in the shadow of the sweeping government crackdown that came in the aftermath of a failed coup last year.
More than 50,000 people, including journalists and opposition lawmakers, have been detained since the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. Critics say the purge initially targeted people suspected of links to the leaders of the failed military takeover, but has expanded to include government opponents.
"Human rights, the rule of law, democracy, fundamental freedoms — including media freedom — are all basic imperative requirements for any progress towards the European Union," Hahn said.
The EU wants to see "progress in all these areas," he said.
"I would like to stress once again our very strong concern about the imprisonment of a large number of journalists, writers, academics, lawyers and human rights defenders and we expect a due legal procedure in respect of the presumption of innocence," Hahn said.
Cavusoglu, however, defended the arrests of activists and journalists by saying they were detained on suspicion of involvement with extremists.
Turkey applied to join the EU three decades ago, and it started negotiating in 2005. But of the 16 negotiating chapters on issues as varied as capital movement and food safety, only one — science and research — has been provisionally closed.
Ankara's minister in charge of EU issues, Omer Celik, said Tuesday's discussions were "constructive."
"It's clear that we have differences, that we have disagreements, but dialogue, discussions and (the) search for settlements ... will of course continue," Celik added.
Celik called accession negotiations "the backbone" of EU-Turkey relations and said the best way to discuss differences would be to open accession chapters.
He said the chapters that cover the judiciary, fundamental rights and security should be opened.
Before the meeting, human rights activists urged the EU to use the meeting to press Ankara to release detained rights activists. Amnesty International's Turkey director, Idil Eser, and its chair, Taner Kilic, are among those being detained.
"Our call is very simple. We want the unconditional and immediate release of these human rights defenders," Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty said.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.