BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday that Turkey was fast abandoning the rule of law and vowed to push her EU partners to consider suspending or ending its accession talks at a meeting in October.
Less than three weeks before a German national election, she spelled out her intentions clearly to the Bundestag lower house of parliament after sharpening her rhetoric on Sunday and saying Turkey should not become an EU member.
Those comments, made in a televised debate with her Social Democrat (SPD) election rival, drew charges of populism from Ankara. It was the latest of a series of spats between Merkel and President Tayyip Erdogan over the last two years which has led to a serious deterioration in relations.
“Turkey is moving away from the path of the rule of law at a very fast speed,” Merkel said, adding her government would do everything it could to secure the release of Germans detained in Turkey, who Berlin says are innocent.
The Foreign Ministry said last week 12 German citizens, four of them with dual citizenship, had been detained in Turkey on political charges. One has since been released.
The ministry updated its travel advice on Tuesday and said that “incomprehensible” arrests were taking place all over Turkey, including regions frequented by tourists.
Venting her growing frustration, Merkel said a rethink of Germany’s and the EU’s relations with Turkey was needed.
“We will also - and I will suggest this takes place at the EU meeting in October - discuss future relations with Turkey, including the question of suspending or ending talks on accession,” she said.
“I will push for a decisive stand ... But we need to coordinate and work with our partners,” she said, adding that it would damage the EU if Erdogan saw member states embroiled in an argument. “That would dramatically weaken Europe’s position.”
Although Turkey’s foreign minister has said EU membership remains a strategic goal, the EU has turned very sceptical - especially since Erdogan’s crackdown on opponents after a failed coup in July 2016.
A European Commission spokesman said on Monday Turkey was taking “giant strides” away from Europe.
Although her conservative party has long opposed Turkish membership of the bloc, Merkel has staked a good deal on maintaining relations with its NATO ally.
She has repeatedly defended an EU-Turkey migrant deal she championed last year because it helped to stem the flow of refugees fleeing war in the Middle East to western Europe.
Merkel said despite her own reservations, she had gone along with EU accession talks agreed by her SPD predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, mainly to ensure continuity in foreign policy.
Erdogan accuses Germany of harbouring plotters behind the 2016 coup attempt. Turkey has arrested about 50,000 people in its purges of state institutions and the armed forces.
Ankara says the crackdown is necessary to ensure national security but many Western countries and human rights groups say it is an attempt by Erdogan to stifle all dissent. Erdogan also won sweeping new powers in a referendum in April.
In the runup to the German election little divides the main parties, who currently share power in a grand coalition, on Turkey.
SPD Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in July said Germans should be careful if they travelled to Turkey and threatened steps that could hurt investment there.
Additional reporting by Paul Carrel; editing by Gareth Jones