EU officials agree to meet Turkey's Erdogan in March despite poor ties

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan greets members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey, February 6, 2018. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Top European Union officials will meet Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Bulgaria on March 26 to discuss EU-Turkey relations as well as regional and international issues, an EU spokesman said on Tuesday.

The meeting in the city of Varna will take place against a background of hostility between Turkey and the bloc and diplomats in Brussels acknowledged that the meeting had been agreed to only reluctantly by some on the EU side.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov will host Erdogan as well as Donald Tusk, who chairs meetings of EU leaders, and the head of the bloc’s executive European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, for a dinner.

“This will be a good opportunity to jointly assess matters of mutual interest and recent developments in your country, including in the area of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms, which remain fundamental to the fabric of and prospects for the EU-Turkey relations,” the two top EU officials said in their invitation to Erdogan.

Ties between Ankara and the EU have gone from bad to worse since a botched 2016 coup in Turkey and over Erdogan’s verbal assaults on Germany and the Netherlands, two of the bloc’s member states.

But the EU also depends on Turkey, NATO’s second-biggest army, for support in the security field and for keeping a tight lid on immigration from the Middle East.

This reality had swayed the EU to agreeing, with some reluctance, to Ankara’s push for the top-level meeting, diplomats said.

Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska,; Editing by Robin Emmott and Richard Balmforth