BERLIN/DUESSELDORF, Germany (Reuters) - Turkey aims to win easier access to the European Union for its citizens, President Tayyip Erdogan said in Berlin on Friday during a state visit that aims to repair relations with Germany after bitter disputes.
Turkey would move to meet the EU’s criteria for achieving visa liberalisation, he said on the second day of a visit also intended to improve ties with the European Union after the freeze that followed a failed coup in 2016.
Facing an economic crisis aggravated by U.S. sanctions, Erdogan is hoping to attract more private investment from the economic superpower on Turkey’s doorstep.
“Visa liberalisation, updating the customs union and reviving accession talks will benefit both Turkey and the EU,” Erdogan said.
Germany, home to 3 million ethnic Turks and reliant on Turkey to help contain a migrant crisis beyond Europe’s borders, is also keen to rebuild ties, yet wariness surrounds the three-day state visit on all sides.
With Erdogan due to continue to Cologne, home to one of the largest Turkish communities outside Turkey, on Saturday, authorities there refused permission for a 25,000-strong spillover crowd to gather outside a giant new mosque that he is due to open.
The regional government also has to rearrange a morning meeting between North Rhine Westfalia’s premier Armin Laschet and Erdogan after the ancestral owners of the castle that was to be the venue obtained an injunction preventing his visit.
Ankara is still smarting at what it sees as Europe’s slowness to condemn the failed coup against Erdogan in 2016, while Germany and EU countries are concerned about the mass arrests that followed, Turkey’s patchy press freedom record and Erdogan’s influence over Turkish diaspora communities in Europe.
Merkel said she had pushed for the release of German citizens among the tens of thousands of people arrested after the coup, blamed by Ankara on supporters of U.S.-based cleric Fetullah Gulen. Gulen denies involvement.
“We take very seriously the evidence Turkey provided,” Merkel told a news conference, but said Germany needed more evidence to declare Gulen’s movement an illegal group as Ankara demands.
Newspaper Bild reported that Erdogan had been ready to call off the news conference if it was attended by Can Dundar, a journalist who fled Turkey into German exile after spying charges were brought against him.
In the event, Dundar stayed away, saying he did not want to give Erdogan an excuse “not to appear at the press conference and face critical questions from my German colleagues.”
Erdogan had earlier described the former editor of Cumhuriyet newspaper - which published a video purporting to show Turkey’s intelligence agency trucking weapons into Syria - as a “spy” who should be extradited to serve time. Dundar rejected that accusation.
The day was punctuated by protests, starting when a participant in the news conference wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Freedom for Journalists” was bustled out when he tried to shout Erdogan down.
Much of central Berlin was in lock-down for the visit, reflecting nervousness at the divisiveness of a visitor who is hailed a hero by many German Turks and reviled as an autocrat by many others.
“It is a scandal in the history of this country that it rolls out the red carpet for dictators,” Left party politician Hakan Tas told a protest demonstration on a central square. “The day will come when the mass murderer of the Bosphorus will sit behind bars.”
Additional reporting by Reuters TV, Ezgi Erkoyun and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Writing by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Andrew Heavens