BRUSSELS (Reuters) - After months of verbal jousting with Turkey, European Union leaders will take a more conciliatory stance towards Ankara at a summit on Thursday, although some still want to cut aid linked to Turkey’s stalled EU membership bid.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised the debate with EU leaders during her re-election campaign last month to discuss ending accession talks with Ankara, a position she unexpectedly backed when her main rival took a hard line on the issue.
But now re-elected, Merkel and her fellow leaders will not push for Turkey’s decade-long membership bid to be formerly cancelled, diplomats said, despite EU concern at President Tayyip Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism and a large-scale purge of his opponents.
Instead, the debate over dinner will return to a familiar balancing act between recognising NATO-ally Turkey’s help dealing with refugees and militants in Syria and expressing concern about Erdogan’s crackdown on the armed forces, state institutions, media and academia since a failed coup last July.
“We don’t want to be the ones to walk away from this relationship,” said a senior EU diplomat said. “It’s a game of who blinks first,” the diplomat said, noting that the debate will take place as Erdogan’s attentions are focussed elsewhere on a visa dispute with the United States.
EU diplomacy was on display on Tuesday when Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, standing beside U.S. President Donald Trump at a news conference in Washington, avoided criticism of Ankara when asked by a reporter if Turkey was still a democracy.
“We continue to support the Turkish course towards Europe,” Tsipras said. “We respect it as a regional power and we believe that it must stay oriented towards the European perspective.”
Polish President Andrzej Duda went further in Warsaw, saying he hoped Turkey would eventually join the European Union and reaffirming a position held along with Britain that the bloc should enlarge eastwards.
Launched in 2005 after decades of seeking the formal start of an EU membership bid, the negotiations dovetailed with Erdogan’s first economic reforms after he took power in 2003.
However, Germany and France were sceptical about absorbing a large, mainly Muslim nation even before Erdogan’s crackdown following the failed coup.
After years of stalemate, top EU officials say the process is now dead, also citing Erdogan’s referendum earlier this year giving him sweeping new powers that rights groups say lack checks and balances.
With 50,000 people jailed pending trial, including German-Turkish nationals, EU membership looks more distant than ever, diplomats and EU officials say.
The European Commision, the EU executive, is expected to come forward with a report early next year on whether EU governments should annul the membership talks with Turkey, a decision likely to further harm Ankara’s image with investors.
Meanwhile, some northern EU governments say the European Union should reduce funding to Turkey linked to EU membership talks because they are effectively stalled, or redirect the money to non-governmental organisations and charities in the country.
Aside from money that the EU gives Turkey for taking in Syrian refugees, Ankara is set to receive 4.4 billion euros between 2014 and 2020, but only a small part of that has been committed for projects such as infrastructure.
“We should try to diminish the number of the funds, the volume, and reroute them from the government to NGOs,” said a second senior EU diplomat.
Some of the funds could go to finance the 2016 migration deal with Turkey, under which the European Union is set to pay another 3 billion euros by the end of 2018, diplomats said.
Reporting by Robin Emmott and Gabriela Baczynska; Additional reporting by Peter Maushagen; Editing by Hugh Lawson