BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Senior European Union officials on Thursday pressed President Tayyip Erdogan over Turkey’s human rights record while he pushed Brussels to deliver on promises of visa-free travel to Europe for Turks.
Erdogan’s visit to Brussels, where he was also due to attend a NATO summit, comes at a time of strain in EU-Turkey relations.
The EU has expressed concern over Turkey’s sacking and jailing of tens of thousands of soldiers, police, teachers and civil servants since a failed military coup last July. It has also criticized a revamping of Turkey’s constitution - backed by a referendum - that greatly expands Erdogan’s powers.
Turkey says its crackdown is targeting supporters of a exiled Muslim cleric it blames for the coup attempt. It has also accused the EU of frustrating Ankara’s decades-old bid to join the bloc. Talks are now effectively frozen and Erdogan has suggested Turkey might walk away from the EU.
“We discussed the need to cooperate. I put the question of human rights in the center of our discussions with Erdogan,” European Council chief Donald Tusk wrote in a tweet following the meeting but gave no further details.
Erdogan posed for photos with Tusk and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker but the atmosphere was frosty and they exchanged no words in public, in contrast to the impromptu conversation the EU officials struck up with U.S. President Donald Trump earlier in the day.
Juncker, Tusk and Erdogan met together for 40 minutes, followed by a 30-minute meeting between Juncker and Erdogan, a spokeswoman for the Commission said.
“The EU and Turkey must and will continue to cooperate. Major issues of common interest were discussed in detail in a good and constructive atmosphere,” she said.
EU officials said the three men discussed the functioning of a 2016 accord whereby Ankara prevents migrants traveling from its territory to Europe in return for funds to aid refugees stuck in Turkey and visa-free travel to the bloc for Turks.
Ankara has previously threatened to walk away from the deal, citing frustration over what it says is Europe’s failure to deliver on its side of the bargain. The EU says Turkey must first amend its security laws.
But EU officials said the agreement did not appear to be in jeopardy after the talks between Erdogan, Tusk and Juncker, their first for nine months. “It is working so far,” one EU official said. “We didn’t see any sign of it changing.”
Turkish presidential sources said Erdogan, Tusk and Juncker had emphasized the need to implement the deal on migrants in their talks.
Erdogan also met new French President Emmanuel Macron in Brussels and they agreed on boosting annual bilateral trade to 20 billion euros ($22 billion) and improving Ankara’s diplomatic ties with the EU, the Turkish sources said.
Macron raised the issue of a French photographer detained by Turkish police while on an assignment in the mainly Kurdish southeast and who has begun a hunger strike in protest, a French official said.
Erdogan told Macron he would quickly look into the situation. Macron and Erdogan also agreed to strengthen consultations on the situation in Syria, the official said.
Reporting By Philip Blenkinsop, Alastair Macdonald and Michel Rose; additional reporting by Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by David Dolan,; Editing by Robert-Jan Bartunek and Gareth Jones