ISTANBUL/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Turkey warned German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday not to play politics with its European Union ambitions, and said failure to open a new chapter in accession talks next week would be a major setback in Ankara’s relations with the bloc.
Many EU capitals want to take the long-awaited step on Turkey’s path towards the EU next week, arguing Europe should capitalise on Ankara’s rising influence in the Middle East.
But Germany has criticised Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s heavy handed response to weeks of anti-government protests and appears to be refusing to agree to open a new negotiation area, potentially the first such step in three years.
Merkel’s conservatives have rejected Turkish EU membership in their German election programme, saying the country would “overburden” the bloc because of its size and economy, sparking anger in Ankara.
“If Mrs Merkel is looking for domestic political material for her elections, that material should not be Turkey,” Turkey’s EU minister Egemen Bagis told reporters on Thursday.
“If Mrs Merkel looks into it she will see that those who mess about with Turkey do not have an auspicious end,” he said.
European governments delayed a decision on Thursday on resuming membership talks because of reluctance in Berlin, setting the stage for last-minute discussions on Monday.
“Nothing was decided. The Germans have to report back home but it seems they are leaning towards not opening the chapter,” said one EU diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Opposition in Germany to Turkish EU membership has grown in recent years, with two thirds saying they opposed it in a new poll by Forsa for Thursday’s edition of weekly magazine Stern.
Merkel said on Monday she was “appalled” by the crackdown on protesters in Istanbul. The protests began over a redevelopment project in a park, but spiralled into an unprecedented show of defiance against what Erdogan critics call his authoritarianism.
Police fired teargas and water cannon to disperse stone-throwing protesters night after night in cities including Istanbul and Ankara, unrest which left four people dead and some 7,500 suffering from injuries ranging from cuts to breathing difficulties, according to the Turkish Medical Association.
Erdogan and his government have bristled at foreign criticism of his handling of the unrest, saying the response was no different to police action taken in the past in countries including Germany and the United States.
Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper quoted a senior Turkish diplomat on Thursday as saying Ankara could suspend negotiations with Brussels altogether if the new chapter - dealing with regional funding issues - is not opened next week, although other officials were more cautious.
“A decision not to open this chapter would definitely send the wrong signal and will draw a strong reaction from Turkey,” a senior Turkish official told Reuters.
“We are telling everyone that this is what we agreed to do months ago ... and if it does not happen, it would definitely be a political decision. As far as we can see, all our EU counterparts can see that and are on board with us,” he said.
Germany is Turkey’s largest trading partner in the EU and is home to some three million Turks, the biggest diaspora in Europe.
All of the major German parties are trying to appeal to voters with immigrant backgrounds ahead of a federal election on September 22 in which Merkel will be trying to win a third term.
But Merkel’s party says Turks in Germany are more interested in jobs and conservative values than Turkey’s EU membership, supported by the opposition Social Democrats and Greens.
The Turkish official said Ankara’s response should the chapter fail to be opened would depend on the justification given by the European Union.
“If it is Germany, whether they present it as a technical issue, a domestic political restraint, or as due to the events that have happened in Turkey will be key,” the official said.
Additional reporting by Stephen Brown in Berlin; editing by Mike Collett-White