Turkey’s rift with Brussels is widening as the European Parliament prepares a formal vote calling for suspension of its EU membership talks in response to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on opponents after July’s failed military coup.
EU member states are divided over Turkey, but most still want the stalled accession process to remain open. However, in a sign of sentiment moving against Ankara, the parliament’s Socialist group has ditched its longstanding support for the country’s membership bid.
The Socialists are joining rival factions to back a planned parliamentary resolution next week calling for the suspension of talks. While non-binding, the move could further intensify tensions with Mr Erdogan, who recently described the parliament’s president as a “shameless” meddler.
Gianni Pittella, president of the Socialist group in the European Parliament, said: “The dramatic backsliding of Turkey in terms of rule of law, democracy and freedom of media seems to have reached the point of no return. We still hope Ankara will turn back on the track of democracy. Currently the minimum conditions to proceed with accession talks do not exist.”
Kati Piri, the Dutch Socialist MEP who is rapporteur on Turkey for the parliament, said European governments had failed so far to address the situation, adding: “For the credibility of the EU’s foreign policy and for the credibility of the enlargement process, the EU has to take a position here.”
Manfred Weber, leader of the parliament’s dominant centre-right bloc, has said talks should be “frozen immediately”.
Some officials in Brussels see the move by the Socialists as a potential turning point, believing it reflects shifting views in Germany, whose government has continued to publicly support the talks with Ankara.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German foreign minister, said on a visit to Ankara on Tuesday that negotiations should continue but he expressed “serious concern” over the crackdown. “Whether Turkey grows closer or distances itself from the EU is not a decision that can be taken in any European capital,” he said.
The Erdogan administration has stepped up its purge in recent weeks, jailing opposition MPs and journalists after removing more than 100,000 soldiers, judges, civil servants and teachers from their posts. Mr Erdogan has also suggested calling a referendum next year on whether Turkey should join the EU.
European foreign ministers discussed the prospect of suspending the accession talks at a meeting in Brussels on Monday, at which many of them expressed deepening anxiety about the suppression of Mr Erdogan’s political opponents and media.
Although there was little support for any immediate move to halt the talks, a senior Brussels official said it was clear any further escalation of the purge could lead to that outcome. Most EU governments believe negotiations should stop if Mr Erdogan follows through on his threat to reinstate the death penalty.
Despite the increased tensions, efforts to maintain dialogue continued Tuesday. Ömer Çelik, Turkey’s EU minister, held talks in Brussels with Federica Mogherini, EU foreign policy chief, and Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament.
But there was no sign of any change of stance in Ankara. “The gulf in views still remains marked,” said Mr Schulz’s spokesman.