December 13, 2016 / 11:56 AM / 2 years ago

EU ministers reject Austrian demand to halt Turkey's membership talks

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Austria failed on Tuesday in an attempt to get the European Union to halt membership talks with Turkey, running into opposition from EU partners anxious not to upset a country whose help they need to curb an influx of Syrian refugees.

Austria demanded the suspension of talks to protest against a Turkish security crackdown since a failed coup attempt in July. The country has jailed some 36,000 people pending trial and sacked or suspended more than 100,000 over their alleged support for the plotters.

But Germany, France and many others, though critical, do not want to alienate Turkey as they need its continued support to keep down the number of migrants reaching Europe. More than 1 million arrived in 2015 but a deal between the EU and Turkey has helped reduce the total to some 380,000 so far this year.

Austria’s stance prevented the EU from agreeing on a text that would not have formally halted talks, although it would have said that no new areas of negotiation should be opened up for now.

Diplomats described the talks as emotional - a reflection of the delicate nature of ties with Turkey and the sensitivity of the immigration debate.

“One country was unable to support the compromise which all the remaining 27 member states found acceptable,” said Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak, who chaired the meeting.

Austria’s Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz told a separate briefing: “From my point of view, it was not enough to give the approval on behalf of Austria. I have not agreed to the text.”

Opinion polls in Austria have regularly shown a large majority opposed to Turkey joining the EU. Kurz and Austria’s Chancellor Christian Kern have at times seemed to try to outbid each other in their criticism of Ankara as they compete for votes before a parliamentary election.

The Turkish talks have made relatively little progress in over a decade and the latest souring of relations between the EU and Turkey makes any advance politically impossible now.

“The accession negotiations have come to a standstill for months and I don’t see any movement in the next couple of months,” said EU enlargement chief Johannes Hahn.

While not ready to formally halt the process, the bloc has warned it would come to an automatic end should Ankara reinstate the death penalty, as it has considered doing.

The worsening of relations has unwound EU promises made only last March to reinvigorate Turkey’s accession process in exchange for Ankara’s help on migration.

The common text on Turkey would have been part of a wider EU review of where other aspiring countries, including Albania and Kosovo, stand on their way toward EU membership. Now there will be no formal agreement on any of that, diplomats said.

“This is unfortunate for the Western Balkan countries that have made some progress and would like to see the EU acknowledging that,” one diplomat said after the meeting.

Additional reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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