EU ministers look for ways to appease Turkey
By Eric Maurice
EU foreign affairs ministers on Friday (2 September) signaled a willingness to ease tensions with Turkey after relations were damaged by a failed coup against president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July.
A meeting on Saturday with Turkey's Europe minister Omer Celik could also open the way to an agreement on visa liberalisation later this year.
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"I expect that after tomorrow's meeting we will help to improve, normalise the atmosphere between the EU and Turkey," sais Slovakia's Miroslav Lajcak, whose country currently chairs the council of the EU.
"Turkey is an important partner, we need to clarify what it is that what we want from Turkey and with Turkey," he told journalists before the meeting in Bratislava.
Since the coup and the widespread crackdown that followed, Ankara has accused the EU of not being supportive enough and Europeans have warned Turkish authorities against violations of human rights and the rule of law.
Erdogan has also threatened to scrap a migrant deal signed off in March if his country was not granted a visa-free regime by the end of October.
Lajcak expressed some kind of European mea culpa. He said that while visiting Ankara last week, he "could feel very strong emotions on the Turkish side that the EU reacted very slowly" to the attempted coup.
"We need to clean the atmosphere," a EU source told EUobserver, adding that Turkey is "too big to be ignored".
The diplomacy chiefs exchanged their views before meeting Celik on Saturday.
They held what the source said was a long and intense discussion on the issue and "nobody left the room even to go to the toilets".
Before meeting Celik they had "to mentally prepare", the source said, and bridge differences between themselves, with some countries holding a harder line towards Turkey.
The Austrian minister Sebastian Kurz, in particular, repeated that his country wanted to suspend accession talks with Turkey.
"The EU and Turkey can intensively cooperate on economy and other issues, but I don't see Turkey as a member of the European Union," he said before the meeting.
"We consider that purges and attempt to muzzle dissent are a wrong path. The EU must show a clear attitude," he said.
Kurz's compatriot and EU neighbourhood commissioner Johannes Hahn said the EU had "more important topics of discussion than accession" and that focussing on that issue "creates an artificial discussion".
After both migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and European Parliament president Matin Schulz visited Ankara on Thursday and said that the EU and Turkey should be able to find a solution to grant Turkish citizens a visa-free regime, some EU officials said Friday that a compromise was at hand.
"There are signs on both sides that we want to find compromise," the EU source said. The official said that despite public threat, Turkey did not really want to scrap the migrant deal.
He also said that while Turkish government was "pushing aggressively" to get visa liberalisation without changing an anti-terror law as required by the EU, it was showing a readiness to find a solution "to outline a way to fulfill" EU criteria.
A solution could be that Turkey makes a commitment to change the controversial law so that the EU says the benchmarks are met.
Asked by EUobserver, French minister Jean-Marc Ayrault did not comment about that possibility but said that it was EU and Turkish "common interest that things make progress".
After weeks of tensions and with a Turkish government increasingly difficult to deal with, the EU source admitted that the EU would have to take a possible Turkish commitment at face value.
"What leverage do we have?," he asked, implying a negative answer.