April 26, 2017 / 10:47 AM / 4 months ago

EU lawmakers call for suspension of Turkey accession talks

A woman poses in front of a huge Turkish flag in Istanbul, Turkey, April 13, 2017.Murad Sezer

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Leading European Union lawmakers called on Wednesday for a formal halt to Turkey's long-stalled EU membership talks, citing President Tayyip Erdogan's plans to assume much greater powers after a referendum this month backed a constitutional overhaul.

Erdogan told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday that Turkey would not wait forever to join the bloc. The EU executive has asked Europe's foreign ministers to consider other types of ties with Turkey when they meet on Friday.

"It's time to reassess our relationship to Turkey. Full membership is not realistic. We need to put an end to that hypocrisy," said Manfred Weber, head of the biggest faction in the EU legislature, the centre-right European People's Party.

Ties between EU states and Turkey, a NATO ally, have soured amid human rights concerns following Erdogan's sweeping crackdown on suspected supporters of a failed military coup last July. Tens of thousands of people, including soldiers, judges teachers and civil servants, have been arrested or sacked.

Erdogan also infuriated Germany and the Netherlands during the referendum campaign by saying they were behaving like the Nazis in banning some rallies by Turkish ministers on their territory. Berlin and The Hague cited security concerns.

Austria has long called for a complete end to Turkey's EU bid, but many other EU states have been more cautious, acutely aware that the bloc needs Ankara's help in keeping a lid on the flow of refugees and migrants from the Middle East.

Kati Piri, a Dutch centre-left European lawmaker who oversees the Turkey portfolio, criticised the plan to give Erdogan more powers. Critics say it will undermine democracy and stifle free speech in Turkey.

"As Turkey with such a constitution cannot become a member of the EU, it doesn't make sense to continue the discussion on integration. The EU should officially suspend the accession talks if the constitutional changes are implemented unchanged," Piri said.

Others in the European Parliament echoed her view, saying the EU needed to forge a different relationship with Turkey on trade, security and migration.

"It may be a more difficult relationship but it will be a more honest relationship. More cautious. More critical. Focussed more on cooperation and no longer on the distant goal of EU membership," said Syed Kamall, a British Conservative.

Piri said any suspension should only come if and when the "authoritarian constitution" is enacted, which would happen after Turkey holds its next election, now due in late 2019.

Officials in Brussels have speculated that Erdogan could bring them forward to swiftly assume the increased powers, though he has said that is not on the agenda now.

Most EU lawmakers said Turkey's EU bid should only be suspended, not completely aborted.

"I don't want to take that perspective away from the Turkish population," Piri said.

"Turkey should remain a candidate country but we're negotiating with the government. It's become clear over the last two years that this government doesn't want to meet criteria."

Piri said she expected the EU foreign ministers on Friday to ask the European Commission for a formal assessment of where Turkey stands on fulfilling the criteria. Based on that, EU leaders could make further decisions when they meet in June.

One tangible effect of suspending the process would be freezing the annual payments of some 600 million euros ($650 million) of EU pre-accession funds to Turkey.

The lawmakers said Brussels could instead open talks on a looser kind of relationship known as an "association agreement", or strengthen the customs union Turkey already has with the EU.

Editing by Gareth Jones

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