EU leaders tell Turkey’s Erdoğan they have common interests but also challenges

The European Union is worried about autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s adherence to the rule of law at home and his actions in Syria and in the eastern Mediterranean but will continue offering its support for Syrian refugees, European Council President Donald Tusk has said.

“Our meeting today demonstrated that while our relationship is going through difficult times, in areas where we do cooperate, we cooperate well,” Tusk told reporters after an EU-Turkey summit in the Bulgarian costal town of Varna. “We reconfirm our readiness to keep up the dialogue and conversation and work together to overcome current difficulties with a view to unleashing the potential of our partnership.”

EU leaders on Monday said they received no concrete answers from President Erdoğan to a long list of concerns, from Turkey’s operation in Syria to the jailing of journalists. “We didn’t achieve any kind of concrete compromise today,” Tusk said and added, “But I still hope that will be possible in the future… Only progress on these issues will allow us to improve the EU-Turkey relations, including the accession process.”

Despite criticism from European governments of what many view as Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism, EU leaders left the door open to Turkey’s stalled bid for membership to the bloc, but said only he could act to remove the obstacles to accession.

“I raised all our concerns, as you know it was a long list”, European Council President Donald Tusk told reporters after the talks held in Varna. “If you are asking me if we achieved some solutions or compromises – my answer is: no,” he added. “Our position is clear – only progress on these issues will allow us to improve EU-Turkey relations, including the accession process.”

“While our relationship is going through difficult times, in areas where we do cooperate, we cooperate well,” Tusk told reporters.

“We hope to have left the difficult times with the EU behind”, Erdogan said and added that “Turkey and the EU are long-term strategic partners. It would be a serious mistake for the bloc to push Turkey out of its enlargement politics”.

The EU would be making a “grave mistake” by cutting Turkey from its expansion policy and should focus on their areas of common interest rather than providing “rambling and unjust criticism,” Erdoğan told the summit in Varna.

Erdoğan said he would seek the removal at a summit with the EU of all obstacles to Turkey’s stalled membership bid, which the bloc however believes are of Ankara’s own making.

Criticism from EU governments of what many view as Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism at home and his intervention in Syria’s war created an uneasy backdrop to the gathering in Varna. Some countries had called for an end to long-stalled accession talks and had hesitated to agree to meet with him.

But Erdoğan said it was time for the EU to “keep its promises” to Turkey, which started formal membership negotiations in 2005 that stalled for five years and have now effectively collapsed. “EU membership continues to be our strategic goal,” Erdoğan told reporters before departing for the summit. “In today’s EU summit, we will convey our expectations about the lifting of the obstacles our country has faced.”

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) wrote a letter to European Union leaders in advance of the summit asking them to press Erdoğan for the restoration of pluralism in Turkey, the lifting of a state of emergency in effect since a coup attempt in July 2016 and the release of all wrongfully imprisoned journalists.

Rebecca Harms, spokeswoman for foreign affairs and expert on Turkey in the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament, initiated an open letter with other lawmakers in which they urged EU leaders to bring human rights to the center of EU relations with Turkey and press Turkish Erdoğan to secure the release of dozens of journalists and many others unjustly jailed in Turkey.

The letter was sent to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk ahead of their meeting with President Erdoğan at the EU-Turkey summit.

In a letter to the European Union’s top officials, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) last week asked the union to call for the release of jailed Turkish journalists as a matter of priority during the meeting in Varna.

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