BRUSSELS The European Union's top officials sharply criticised Turkey on Wednesday for accusing EU states Germany and the Netherlands of fascism, saying the charges were driving Ankara further away from its goal of joining the bloc.
A war of words between Turkey and the EU has erupted after several countries stopped Turkish politicians holding rallies intended to drum up support for plans to give President Tayyip Erdogan sweeping new powers in an April referendum.
The Dutch banned a rally in Rotterdam at the weekend, fearing tensions in Turkey over the referendum could spill over into its expatriate Turkish community. Erdogan retaliated by branding the Netherlands "Nazi remnants". He has also accused Germany of "fascist actions" for cancelling several planned rallies.
"Rotterdam... totally destroyed by the Nazis, which now has a mayor born in Morocco: If any anyone sees fascism in Rotterdam they are completely detached from reality," European Council President Donald Tusk told the European Parliament.
Tusk's remarks were echoed by the head of the executive European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker: "This is totally unacceptable and the one who is doing this is taking distance from Europe and not trying to enter the European Union."
In the ensuing debate, some lawmakers revived calls for a formal end to Turkey's EU accession talks. While such a move would send a strong political message, it would be largely symbolic in practice as the decades-long process has made little progress.
Erdogan, who survived a military coup last summer, has defended his plans to amass greater powers, saying Turkey needs greater stability. But his crackdown on dissenting voices among the judiciary and the media since the failed coup has drawn rebuke from the West.
Still, the EU is caught between holding Erdogan accountable and guaranteeing the continuation of a deal to control the flow of refugees and migrants who pass through Turkey to Europe.
This agreement has given the EU a badly-needed breathing space after more than a million people, mostly escaping conflicts in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, fled to the bloc in 2015-16 via Turkey, Greece and the Balkans.
Turkey's EU affairs minister, Omer Celik, told Reuters on Tuesday it was time for Ankara to reassess the deal as the EU had failed to deliver on its promise to provide visa-free access to Europe in exchange for help on migration.
On Wednesday the European Commission said it remained committed to the deal and expected Turkey to comply as well as it was in their mutual interest.
Even before Erdogan sought to change the constitution, the EU said Turkey must still meet seven of 72 criteria required for visa-free travel. These included softening anti-terrorism laws that Brussels says are applied too broadly to pursue dissenters. Ankara insists they are necessary for security.
EU officials say they are not yet worried the migrant deal might collapse, noting that the bloc has disbursed 777 million euros as part of the accord to help Syrian refugees in Turkey.
"Erdogan knows he cannot blow it up ... he needs our money. He is nervous because he may lose his referendum," a senior EU diplomat said.
(Additional reporting by Waverly Colville, Gabriela Baczynska, Alastair Macdonald and Francesco Guarascio, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Gareth Jones and Richard Lough)