TALLINN (Reuters) - Turkey said on Friday the European Union was making a “child’s game” out of its membership talks, wrangling over threats to end them, and reminded the bloc of its strategic importance abutting Middle Eastern conflict zones.
After trading bitter barbs for months with President Tayyip Erdogan, largely over Turkey’s human rights record, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Sunday it was clear Turkey should not join the EU and accession talks should end.
Most other EU states reacted cautiously to her comments and said any real discussion would be possible only after German elections on Sept. 24. But some, like Austria, backed Merkel and some officials have suggested suspension of talks.
“This is not a children’s game at all,” Turkish EU Minister Omer Celik said after meeting EU foreign ministers in Estonia’s capital Tallinn.
“You cannot talk about suspending or halting the accession negotiations and then restarting it in six months, and that Turkey is a great strategic and important country.”
The bloc has been shocked by the scale of Erdogan’s purges and the intensity of his crackdown on dissenters - including academics and journalists - after a failed coup last year.
Many EU ministers in Tallinn stressed that Turkey, a NATO ally of 80 million people, was indispensable for security cooperation and keeping a lid on immigration to the bloc from the tumultuous Middle East.
French President Emmanuel Macron said separately that Turkey remained a vital partner for the EU.
Celik reiterated his call to open more areas of negotiations with the EU.
“This approach of ‘I froze talks, now I restarted them’ is not acceptable for us,” he said.
The talks started in 2005, viewed by many in Turkey and abroad as a stimulus in themselves to Turkish democratic reform. But they have stalled over opposition from EU states including Cyprus and France, Erdogan’s track record on human rights and other issues.
While Austria and Luxembourg were among those who backed Merkel’s tougher line on Turkey, Hungary, Lithuania and Britain - which will be leaving the EU - held the opposite view.
“All European countries, including the UK, have concerns, serious concerns about human rights in Turkey, about arrests... (and) the treatment of journalists,” British foreign minister Boris Johnson told reporters.
“But it’s always been my view that we shouldn’t push Turkey away. Turkey is a great country and a strategically important country for all of us.”
EU states would have to be unanimous to kill off Turkey’s bid, but suspension requires only majority backing. EU leaders are expected to discuss the matter in Brussels in October.
Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; editing by Ralph Boulton,