EU rejects calls for 'freeze' in Turkey talks
The European Parliament and Austria's demands to suspend negotiations with Turkey in its bid to join the EU were roundly opposed by EU member states.
EU ministers on Tuesday (13 December) said Ankara's membership "accession process is open-ended" even though no new negotiating chapters will be launched in the foreseeable future.
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Although talks have stalled since the last negotiation chapter was opened in June, the push for a formal freeze was meant to send a political signal against Turkey's widespread crackdown on so-called state saboteurs.
Slovakia's foreign minister Miroslav Lajcak, who chaired the meeting on behalf of his country's EU presidency, said that "one country was unable to accept a compromise, which all remaining 27 member states found acceptable."
Austria refused to budge on its demand to insert the word "freeze" in the meeting's formal conclusions. The position of the other ministers was published in a statement released by the Slovak presidency.
Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, in the lead up to Tuesday's meeting, had demanded to stop Turkey's membership process.
"In Turkey, dissenters are intimidated, journalists and opposition politicians are imprisoned. The death penalty is to be introduced. We as the European Union must react to this," he told Deutsche Welle news outlet earlier this week.
Turkey now ranks as the world's top jailer of journalists with some 81 behind bars. China trails in second with 38 imprisoned reporters.
The EU wants to maintain already strained diplomatic ties with Ankara over broader fears that the country may scrap a migrant swap deal that was signed off in March.
"The EU remains committed to maintaining an open dialogue and working together with a democratic, inclusive and stable Turkey," said the ministers in a press statement, while highlighting Turkey's backsliding on the judiciary and freedom of expression.
"It's business as usual," said one EU official of Turkey's membership path.
Broader issues of Turkey's membership bid won't be discussed at a EU leaders summit in Brussels on Thursday. The European Commission described the suspension talks "as an artificial debate" because of the stand-still in accession negotiations.
"I don't see any movement in the next couple of months," said EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn.
EU parliament sidelined
But Tuesday's decision is still a blow for the European Parliament. The assembly had in late November roundly supported a temporary freeze in talks.
German MEP Manfred Weber, who heads the parliament's largest political group, the centre-right EPP, reiterated the demand earlier on Tuesday in Strasbourg.
"The EPP believes the Council has to send out a strong signal to Turkey," he said. "We can no longer turn a blind eye to what is going on."
Turkey was granted candidate status in 1999 with accession negotiations opening a few years later. Out of the 16 chapters opened so far, only one was closed.