BRATISLAVA The European Union and Turkey tested the waters for a political rapprochement on Saturday with a first meeting between the bloc's 28 foreign ministers and a senior Ankara official after a failed coup in Turkey in July strained their uneasy ties.
The EU, which depends on Ankara to keep a lid on the movement of migrants to the bloc, is now seeking to ease tensions with Turkey after voicing loud criticism of President Tayyip Erdogan's post-coup crackdown.
"On the political level we need a rapprochement, we need to normalise the situation," Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told Reuters after the EU ministers' meeting with Turkey's EU Affairs Minister Omer Celik.
"It's the first time since the coup that we spoke to each other, not about one another. But we cannot forget the rule of law. Everyone around the table said that if they want to stabilize the situation, they must come back to the rule of law as quickly as possible."
Celik, speaking to reporters via a translator, expressed Turkey's strong disappointment with the EU's initial reaction to the attempted military coup.
But he also said: "As a result of the meeting, there is very strong consensus about focusing on a positive agenda and further enhancing cooperation between Turkey and the EU."
The EU, often critical of Turkey's track record on human rights and rule of law, was taken further aback when Ankara dismissed 80,000 people from public duty and arrested many of them over alleged sympathies with the plotters.
Turkey was enraged by what it saw as the EU's half-hearted condemnation of the coup. It accused Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen of masterminding it, which he denied.
With the talks in Bratislava, the bloc is now sending a more conciliatory message, while upholding demands that Turkey makes a greater effort towards upholding democratic principles.
"I really expect an improvement of relationship now," Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak said.
The Netherlands was more cautious, as it also raised with fellow EU states the issue of dealing with Gulen supporters in their own countries.
Austria has gone as far as to propose dropping EU accession talks with Turkey over democratic deficiencies but, despite widespread reservations among EU capitals on whether Ankara should or would ever join, Vienna seemed to be getting little support on this particular point.
MIGRATION AND VISAS
Celik criticized Austria, saying such comments "lack vision" and "put in jeopardy the future of Europe".
He said Ankara would stick to the migration accord but that it was "not rational" to expect the Turkish government to relax its counter-terrorism laws now as it fights Islamic State in neighboring Syria and Kurdish militants on its own soil.
He did not rule out, however, that this could happen in the future once there is "no terrorism threat" in Turkey, saying Ankara was ready for talks on that with the Council of Europe (CoE), a European rights body of which Turkey is a member.
The EU worries Turkey applies its anti-terror laws too broadly to go after Erdogan critics and has made easing them a precondition for granting Turks visa-free movement.
Ankara previously threatened to walk away from cooperation on migration should it not get more relaxed travel rules in October, a prospect Celik downplayed on Saturday.
But he did say Turkey would not seal any new deals to control migration to the EU before it gets visa liberalization.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu would travel to Strasbourg next week to discuss the role the CoE could play in post-coup prosecutions in Turkey.
"We need to underscore that we stand by the side of Turkey, and have enormous respect for the Turkish people who rose up and fought the military coup," he said.
"Perhaps we must admit self-critically that the empathy and emotionality of our statements of solidarity were not heard and received in Turkey with the needed intensity," Steinmeier said of the EU's initial reaction to the botched coup.
EU-Turkey talks will continue when Erdogan will meet Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the EU's executive arm, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in China on Sunday and Monday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin met Erdogan in Hangzhou on the eve of the summit and told him he was glad that political life was being stabilized in Turkey.
"We see that the Turkey is living through difficult time, is fighting against terrorism and facing serious terrorist crimes."
"You and me have several time expressed our position on the fight against terrorism. I am sure that you have already succeeded in fully normalizing the situation," Putin said.
(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Berlin, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Jon Boyle and Angus MacSwan)